Facing Indictments, Israel's Prime Minister Requests Immunity

Jan 2, 2020
Originally published on January 2, 2020 10:21 am
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NOEL KING, HOST:

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu went on Israeli television last night with a tough sell. He said Parliament should grant him immunity from corruption charges. He's facing three indictments.

NPR's Daniel Estrin has been following all this from Jerusalem. He's on the line. Hi, Daniel.

DANIEL ESTRIN, BYLINE: Hi, Noel.

KING: So this seems like quite a gutsy move, asking for immunity. Is there precedent for this in Israeli history?

ESTRIN: This is the first time that a sitting prime minister has faced criminal charges and the first time that a prime minister is specifically asking for immunity from prosecution. It really is a dramatic moment.

KING: OK, so we are talking about corruption charges, which is a big, broad thing. What specifically is he accused of doing?

ESTRIN: He's facing bribery, fraud and breach of trust charges. He's accused of using the power of his office to help mostly media executives with their business and in exchange getting cigars and champagne and positive press on a popular news site.

KING: OK. And when he makes the case that he deserves immunity, like you said, it's a big ask. It's an unprecedented ask. What case is he making?

ESTRIN: Well, he's saying that the indictment against him is a deep state plot by justice officials, the left wing and the media to topple him from office. And he has the right to ask Parliament. By law, he can ask Parliament to grant him immunity from prosecution if he can convince Parliament that the charges against him are politically motivated and that a trial would be against the public interest.

So that's what he's doing now. He's asking Parliament to vote on that. And he also has to, you know, sell this to the Israeli public. So he went on TV yesterday, and let's listen to what he said.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRIME MINISTER BENJAMIN NETANYAHU: (Speaking Hebrew).

ESTRIN: He said he would seek immunity because he wants to continue to lead Israel for many more years to achieve historic accomplishments. And he said one of those would be to try to get a green light from the U.S. to annex lands in the occupied West Bank, which would be a very controversial move. And already this morning, he flew to Athens to sign a gas pipeline deal. And so this is Netanyahu playing on his strongest card. He's trying to remind Israelis, you know, I'm a world statesman.

KING: He is somebody who can get things done. OK, so this brings up an interesting question, which is what do Israelis think about their leader who gets things done but is also accused of being corrupt asking to be let off the hook?

ESTRIN: It doesn't let Netanyahu off the hook completely. If Parliament does give him immunity, his trial would await him after he leaves office, and he would have to ask Parliament for immunity every single time there were new elections and a new Parliament formed.

But on the question of Netanyahu asking for immunity now, Israelis are quite divided on that question. A recent poll suggests that about half of Israelis oppose Netanyahu getting immunity. And Netanyahu's main rival, the centrist Benny Gantz, says no one is above the law. Netanyahu is holding the entire country hostage to his legal problems. And he says Netanyahu should step down and face trial.

KING: What does this mean for his political future? You mentioned elections coming up.

ESTRIN: Well, it's not looking great. I mean, there were two inconclusive elections in the past year. No one secured a clear victory, and Netanyahu refused to step down each time. We're facing new elections in March. Based on polling, it doesn't look like the result will be any different.

And this whole political paralysis plays in Netanyahu's favor. He gets to hang on. His corruption trial is delayed. There's no functioning Parliament to vote on his immunity request. And, you know, even party insiders I've spoken to quietly say they think we're witnessing this very slow, agonizing, you know, last throes of Netanyahu's decade as prime minister.

KING: NPR's Daniel Estrin in Jerusalem. Daniel, thanks so much.

ESTRIN: Sure thing. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.