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Netanyahu seeks parliamentary immunity from corruption charges

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who was indicted on charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust, denies any wrongdoing
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will seek immunity on corruption charges (Reuters)

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu plans to seek parliamentary immunity from prosecution in three criminal cases, potentially delaying proceedings against him as he prepares for his third election in just over a year. 

A trial cannot get underway once an immunity request is made, and Netanyahu announced the politically risky move in a speech on live television on Wednesday, just four hours before a deadline for an application was to expire.

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Netanyahu was indicted in November on charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust over allegations he granted state favours worth hundreds of millions of dollars to Israeli media barons in return for gifts and favourable coverage.

Netanyahu said in his address that the charges against him were politically motivated and he was entitled to parliament's protection.

He denied any wrongdoing, saying he was the victim of a witch hunt by the media and the left to oust a popular right-wing leader.

"I intend to ask the Knesset speaker to let me implement my right, my duty and my mission to continue serving you for the future of Israel," Netanyahu said.

"There are people, who unlike me, did commit grave crimes and they have life-long immunity. They are just on the right side of the media and the left wing," he added.

Amid deep political deadlock, parliament seems unlikely to decide the issue before Israel's 2 March election. 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.

'Netanyahu knows he's guilty'

Netanyahu was charged with breach of trust and fraud in three corruption cases, as well as bribery in one of the investigations, according to a charge sheet released by the justice ministry.

In the most significant case, dubbed Case 4000, the premier is accused of making decisions benefitting Bezeq - Israel's biggest telecommunications company - in exchange for positive coverage on the website Walla News, which is controlled by the company's former chairman.

"Netanyahu knows he's guilty," said Benny Gantz, Netanyahu's main political rival.

"Whoever thinks 'there is nothing because there was nothing' [a statement Netanyahu has repeated regarding the charges against him] should not be afraid to face trial." 

Netanyahu could face a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison if he is found guilty of bribery.

He could face three years in prison for fraud and breach of trust.