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Israel's Netanyahu asks parliament for immunity

The immunity request is expected to delay the start of court proceedings for months, as lawmakers are not due to vote on the matter until after 2 March elections.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks at a press conference regarding his intention to file a request to the Knesset for immunity from prosecution, in Jerusalem on 1 January 2020. Picture: AFP

JERUSALEM - Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Wednesday asked parliament for immunity, weeks after the embattled premier was indicted on a range of corruption charges.

Netanyahu, Israel's longest-serving premier, is fighting for his political survival on two fronts - the corruption allegations and stiff opposition from a new centrist party.

The immunity request is expected to delay the start of court proceedings for months, as lawmakers are not due to vote on the matter until after 2 March elections.

The request is "in line with the law... (and) with the goal of continuing to serve you, for the future of Israel," Netanyahu told reporters in Jerusalem.

His spokesman Ofer Golan later confirmed the request had been submitted to the speaker of Israel's parliament, the Knesset.

Netanyahu was charged by the attorney general in November with bribery, fraud and breach of trust in three separate corruption cases.

The leader of the right-wing Likud party denies the allegations and accuses prosecutors and the media of a witch hunt.

Reacting to the premier's announcement, his rival Benny Gantz, the leader of the centrist Blue and White party, said "Netanyahu knows that he is guilty."

Gantz said his own party will do everything it can to "prevent immunity".

"In Israel, nobody is above the law".

A sitting prime minister is only required to step down once convicted and after all avenues of appeal have been exhausted.

'ONLY THE PEOPLE DECIDE'

But legal experts have asked the Supreme Court to rule on whether a premier can be tasked by the president with forming a new government while under indictment.

A panel of three judges began looking into the matter on Tuesday, and said they would make a ruling at a later time, without giving a date.

Netanyahu has described the legal initiative as a trap.

But "I don't for a moment think that Israel's Supreme Court will fall into this trap. In a democracy, only the people decide who will lead them, and nobody else," Netanyahu said on Twitter on Tuesday.

Allegations against the premier include receiving gifts worth thousands of dollars and offering to change regulations in exchange for positive media coverage.

Despite his legal woes, Netanyahu remains popular within Likud and last week secured a landslide victory in a leadership challenge.

He saw off a bid to wrest control of the party by one-time interior minister Gideon Saar, winning with 72.5% of Likud members' ballots, compared with 27.5% for the challenger.

The result strengthened his position in a party he has dominated for 20 years, with Netanyahu calling it a "huge win".

Saar launched his bid after the premier failed to cobble together a governing coalition in the wake of two general elections in 2019 - one held in April, the second in September.

He said his challenge was "not because of the Likud's ideas", but because a failure to change leadership would bring the risk of a left-wing government.

Likud and the Blue and White party were deadlocked in April and September, necessitating a third national poll within a year.

The premier has vowed to win the March general election, although early opinion polls indicate the vote could result in yet another stalemate.

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