Israel's opposition seeks swift end to Netanyahu immunity bid


Jerusalem (AFP)

The Israeli opposition pushed Sunday for parliament to swiftly address Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's immunity request, potentially speeding up the embattled leader's appearance in court.

Netanyahu announced his bid for immunity just two months before the March 2 general election, with opponents slamming the move as a ploy to delay legal proceedings.

The current parliament was not expected to address the matter, but members of the centrist Blue and White alliance have sought to kick-start the procedure in order to reject the immunity request before polls.

Their effort to form the parliamentary committee -- a necessary initial step -- gained the approval Sunday of the Knesset's legal advisor.

The fact that the parliament was in a transition period was not sufficient grounds "to prevent the house Knesset committee and plenum from discussing and decreeing on immunity requests", legal advisor Eyal Yinon told Knesset speaker Yuli Edelstein.

The request to form the house committee was signed by factions representing 65 lawmakers, which would constitute a majority in favour of denying Netanyahu immunity among the 120 Knesset members.

But the creation of the house committee may be thwarted, as Edelstein is seeking to block the preliminary step of forming an arrangement committee.

The parliamentary speaker, a member of Netanyahu's right-wing Likud party, has requested Yinon's legal advice on whether he has the authority to do so.

"After receiving the opinion, Edelstein will announce his decision," his spokesman told AFP.

Blue and White, led by Netanyahu's main challenger Benny Gantz, warned the speaker to not "quash the sanctity of Israel's democracy".

"We call upon him to allow for the establishment of a Knesset committee to discuss Netanyahu's request for immunity," a statement from the movement said.

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

The Likud leader denies the allegations and accuses prosecutors and the media of a witch hunt.

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

Likud and Blue and White were deadlocked in April and September elections, prompting a third national poll within a year.