Netanyahu will need the support of 61 of its 120 legislators for immunity to be granted, the same majority that eluded him in attempts to form a government after national ballots in April and September.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced on Wednesday in a live television appearance that he will ask the Knesset – Israel’s parliament – for immunity to avoid being brought to trial in three corruption cases.
“I intend to make a request to the speaker of the Knesset,” said Netanyahu, stressing that such a request “would be in line with the law ... (and) with the goal of continuing to serve you, for the future of Israel.”
The announcement came just hours before the deadline for requesting immunity, the last resort remaining to Israel’s longest-serving prime minister to dodge – or at least delay – trial on bribery, fraud and breach of trust in three separate cases brought against him by Israel’s attorney general in November.
Netanyahu earlier this week called parliamentary immunity the “cornerstone of democracy,” in a way of foreshadowing his intention to request it.
His decision will have the practical effect of delaying the start of court proceedings against him, probably until after the March 2 national elections, the third in less than a year in Israel, which is enduring an unprecedented logjam in its politics.
As a result of the political impasse, the parliamentary committee tasked with deciding on the immunity request is not formulated and the Knesset is not even in session.
If the parliament does not formulate the committee so that it may decide upon the premier’s request, the decision on immunity probably would not be made until the formation of a government following the elections and the appointment of such a committee.
If the parliament denies Netanyahu's request, the politician could be appeal the decision to Israel’s Supreme Court, which would delay the start of a trial even more.
If Netanyahu receives immunity, that would have to be ratified by the full Knesset and, if that were done, the premier would not be able to be brought to trial as long as he remained in his post.
Some analysts say that the decision could cost Netanyahu significantly in the election, which will be the first to be held since he was accused of corruption by Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit.
The parties represented in the Knesset were not able to agree to form a government after the elections last April and September, and the country has been in a political stalemate for months during which Netanyahu’s legal situation has become more and more problematic.
Responding to Netanyahu's speech, his main rival, Benny Gantz, a former armed forces chief who heads the centrist Blue and White party, said the prime minister was "jeopardizing the civic principle upon which we were all educated - that everyone is equal before the law".
Recent opinion polls have shown neither Blue and White nor Netanyahu's Likud party are within easy reach of a governing bloc in parliament in an election now two months away.