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Netanyahu seeks immunity from Israeli corruption charges

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Fighting for his future, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel on Wednesday asked parliament to grant him immunity from prosecution in three graft cases, a rare and contentious step that critics say violates the principle of equality before the law.

[JERUSALEM] Fighting for his future, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel on Wednesday asked parliament to grant him immunity from prosecution in three graft cases, a rare and contentious step that critics say violates the principle of equality before the law.

The immunity request is the latest twist in the political and legal drama that has paralysed the Israeli government.

Long famed for his survival skills, Mr Netanyahu is taking the risky move to fend off charges that imperil his legacy and could eventually land him in prison. But the effort also threatens to further polarise a divided nation and prolong the political deadlock that has left the country without a fully functioning government for nearly a year.

Submitted barely three hours before the legal deadline, the immunity request could delay for months the criminal cases against Mr Netanyahu, who faces a general election in two months, the country's third in less than a year. If it is approved, immunity could keep him out of court for as long as he remains a member of parliament.

Mr Netanyahu was indicted in November on charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust. He has denied any wrongdoing.

He had kept the country guessing about his next move, apparently wary that an immunity request could endanger his re-election prospects and that of his conservative Likud party by fuelling accusations that he was putting himself above the law.

In an effort to limit the political damage, Mr Netanyahu played down the effect of his request. Delivering a statement live on television during prime time, he insisted it was a "temporary" measure that would be valid for only one term of parliament.

He said immunity was meant to prevent "political indictments whose purpose is to impair the will of the people", adding, "Unfortunately, that's what happened in my case."

Mr Netanyahu, Israel's longest serving prime minister, is running for a fourth consecutive term in an election set for March 2. The country has no limits on the number of terms a prime minister or lawmaker can serve.

The campaign, largely focused on Mr Netanyahu's fate, was already expected to be divisive. Two earlier elections, in April and September, ended inconclusively, with neither Mr Netanyahu, nor his chief opponent, Benny Gantz of the centrist Blue and White party, able to muster the majority needed to form a viable government.

"I never imagined we would see the day when a prime minister of Israel would avoid standing before the law and the courts," Mr Gantz said in a televised statement immediately after Mr Netanyahu's announcement.

"Today it is clear what we are fighting for," Mr Gantz said. "Netanyahu knows he's guilty." He said the choice was between "immunity before all else or the citizens of Israel before all else; between the kingdom of Netanyahu or the state of Israel."

Mr Netanyahu is accused of trading official favours worth hundreds of millions of dollars to Israeli media moguls for illicit gifts of cigars, champagne and jewellery, as well as positive news coverage. He has long argued that the criminal investigations against him are the result of a witch hunt led by elitist forces trying to oust him through "fake news" in the liberal media and through the courts.

Immunity that defends a lawmaker's freedom of speech is indeed "a constitutional institution that is very important", said Suzie Navot, a professor of constitutional law at the Striks School of Law near Tel Aviv. "But that is not the kind of immunity that Netanyahu is talking about."

Under Israel's immunity law, which was amended in 2005, lawmakers no longer have automatic immunity but must seek it from a parliamentary body known as a House Committee, whose decision must then be ratified by a simple majority in parliament.

The current, caretaker government has not formed a House Committee, and there may not be one to discuss a request by Mr Netanyahu for weeks or months after the March election, until a new government can be formed. Court proceedings against Mr Netanyahu would be frozen until any immunity request could be heard.

It is not clear whether Mr Netanyahu could secure a parliamentary majority to grant him immunity. Avigdor Lieberman, leader of the right-wing Israel Beiteinu party that used to be allied with Mr Netanyahu's Likud, and whose votes Mr Netanyahu would need, said Wednesday night that he would not support Mr Netanyahu's bid for immunity.

NYTIMES