JERUSALEM – Fighting for his future, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel on Wednesday said he was asking parliament to grant him immunity from prosecution in three graft cases, a rare and contentious step that critics said violated the principle of equality before the law.
The immunity request is the latest twist in the political and legal drama that has paralyzed the Israeli government for nearly a year. It could delay for months the cases against Netanyahu, who faces a general election in two months. And if it is approved, immunity could keep him out of court for as long as he remains a member of parliament.
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 fueling accusations of putting himself above the law.
In an effort to limit the political damage, Netanyahu played down the effect of his immunity request. Delivering a statement that was broadcast 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."
Listing his achievements and promising more, he said, "I intend to continue to lead Israel for many years to come." He also said he would ultimately disprove the allegations against him in court.
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 election will be Israel's third in a year. The campaign, largely focused on Netanyahu's fate, was already expected to be divisive.
Two earlier elections, in April and September, ended inconclusively, with neither 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," Gantz said in a televised statement immediately after Netanyahu's announcement.
"Today it is clear what we are fighting for. Netanyahu knows he's guilty," Gantz said, adding that 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."
Netanyahu is accused of trading official favors worth hundreds of millions of dollars to Israeli media moguls for illicit gifts of cigars, Champagne and jewelry, as well as positive news coverage.
Netanyahu has long argued that the criminal investigations against him are the result of a witch hunt led by leftist, 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 Netanyahu for weeks or months after the March election, until a new government can be formed. Court proceedings against Netanyahu would be frozen until any immunity request could be heard.