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Netanyahu Scraps Immunity Bid as Graft Trial Moves Closer

Alisa Odenheimer

(Bloomberg) -- Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was formally indicted on corruption charges after scrapping his bid for parliamentary immunity from prosecution just hours before lawmakers were to consider the request.

A defeat in parliament would have delivered an embarrassment to the embattled premier, and taken some of the gloss off a U.S. peace plan for the Middle East to be released on Tuesday that’s expected to deliver major triumphs for Israel.

Netanyahu said in a Facebook post that he had informed Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein of his decision. Parliament had been scheduled to decide whether to form a committee to discuss the request for immunity, which didn’t appear to have enough support in the legislature.

“Because I haven’t been allowed a fair process,” Netanyahu wrote in the post, “I have decided not to let this rigged game continue.” The prime minister, who’s in Washington for the Tuesday release of President Donald Trump’s long-awaited Middle East proposal, added that he “wouldn’t allow his political rivals to use the issue to disrupt the historic” occasion.

Shortly after, the Justice Ministry said that in light of Netanyahu’s decision to withdraw the request, prosecutors had submitted the indictment to the Jerusalem district court. A spokesman for the court said it wasn’t possible to say when a trial might begin, but local media have reported that proceedings aren’t likely to start before a crunch March 2 general election.

Buying Time

“He knew that immunity would not be granted to him anyway so he wanted to spare himself from the humiliation and because of the election,” said Amir Fuchs, a researcher at the Israel Democracy Institute. “He wants people to talk about what’s going on with Trump and America, he wants the headlines to deal with things that are good to him.”

The Trump peace plan is expected to adopt many of Israel’s viewpoints and continue the president’s ardent support for Netanyahu.

While Netanyahu didn’t have majority backing in parliament when he asked for immunity earlier this month, he was trying to buy time. He gambled that a key panel that must debate the petition wouldn’t be formed while a caretaker government is in place, and that his request -- and by extension, his trial -- would be delayed until after ballot.

Israelis will go to the polls for the third time in less than a year in early March as Netanyahu, Israel’s longest serving prime minister, battles for his political survival against challenger Benny Gantz.

Victory would enable Netanyahu to revive the immunity request before a sympathetic parliament. But after the assembly’s legal adviser ruled earlier this month the panel could be formed now and Edelstein, a member of Netanyahu’s Likud party, couldn’t block it, that stall tactic fizzled.

The prime minister can still try to push through a law granting him immunity from prosecution if he wins the next election, Fuchs said.

The attorney general’s office told Netanyahu in November that he would be tried in three cases, on charges including bribery. He’s accused of abusing his position to take gifts from wealthy friends and scheming to benefit media moguls to win favorable coverage.

--With assistance from Ivan Levingston.

To contact the reporter on this story: Alisa Odenheimer in Jerusalem at aodenheimer@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Shaji Mathew at shajimathew@bloomberg.net, Mark Williams, Amy Teibel

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