Netanyahu says he will seek immunity in graft cases

JERUSALEM: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin said Wednesday that he would ask Parliament to protect him from prosecution in the three bribery cases he faces, a politically risky measure that could delay criminal proceedings against him for months.

Netanyahu was charged in November with charges of bribery, fraud and abuse of trust on charges that he granted state favors worth hundreds of millions of dollars to Israeli media barons in exchange for gifts and favorable coverage.

He denies having acted badly, says he is the victim of a witch hunt by the media and left to overthrow a popular right-wing leader.

A trial cannot be initiated once an immunity request is made, and Netanyahu announced the movement in a live television speech just four hours before the deadline for the request expired.

Netanyahu said in his speech that the charges against him had political motivations and that he was entitled to the protection of parliament.

In a democracy, only people decide who will lead them, said Netanyahu, who has been in power consecutively for the past decade and has compared the accusation against him with an attempted coup.

Under Israeli law, a legislator seeking immunity can do so for numerous reasons that include an argument that the prosecution is not acting in good faith.

If Netanyahu had not submitted the request before Wednesday's deadline, the accusation against him could have been filed in court as early as Sunday, starting the proceedings.

In the midst of a deep political stalemate, it seems unlikely that parliament will decide the issue before the Israeli elections on March 2. Netanyahu will need the support of 61 of its 120 legislators to be granted immunity, the same majority that eluded him in his attempts to form a government after national voting in April and September.

If immunity is finally granted, which entitles Netanyahu to avoid a trial while a member of parliament, the Supreme Court of Israel is empowered to review the decision and annul it.

Netanyahu's request for immunity carries political risks, adding more ammunition to challengers who seek to portray him as an autocratic leader who sees himself above the rule of law and who poses a danger to Israel's democratic and judicial bases.

In response to Netanyahu's speech, his main rival, a former head of the armed forces who heads the Blue and White centrist party, said the prime minister was endangering the civic principle on which we were all educated: that all are equal Before the Law.

Recent opinion polls have shown that neither the Blue and White Party nor that of Netanyahu are within reach of a ruling bloc in parliament in an election that is now two months away.