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Israeli MPs get backing to discuss Netanyahu immunity

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Jerusalem (AFP)

Israeli lawmakers got the backing Sunday of parliament's legal adviser to debate Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's immunity request, but the speaker may yet stand in the way.

Netanyahu has been charged in three separate corruption cases and his immunity request had been expected to delay his court appearance until after March 2 elections.

But his opponents have sought to kick-start the process and deny the premier immunity before polls, by getting approval to form the necessary parliamentary committees.

The Knesset's legal adviser on Sunday issued his opinion that speaker Yuli Edelstein -- a member of Netanyahu's right-wing Likud party -- cannot stand in the way.

Legal adviser Eyal Yinon concluded "the speaker of the Knesset cannot prevent" the two committees being convened, according to a parliamentary statement.

Edelstein had sought to block the committees being formed and requested a legal opinion on whether he had the authority to do so.

The speaker on Sunday rejected Yinon's advice, warning that convening the committees would be a "grave mistake".

"We are just weeks ahead of elections, everybody knows that at such a time the house committee would become a jungle," he said at a press conference.

Edelstein described the stalemate as "unprecedented".

It was unclear whether lawmakers could forge ahead and form the parliamentary committees without his approval.

"I disagree with the Knesset legal adviser's opinion," he said.

"As far as it depends on me, I will not lend a hand in turning the committee to a place of cheap election propoganda," Edelstein added.

The legal opinion followed a request to launch the process by parties representing 65 lawmakers -- a majority of the 120 Knesset members -- in favour of denying Netanyahu immunity.

The centrist Blue and White alliance, which holds 33 seats, proceeded Sunday with a bid to force the issue.

The alliance's Avi Nissenkorn chairs a key committee which in turn can convene the crucial House Committee to deal with the immunity request.

"I have asked... Nissenkorn to convene the Arrangements Committee as soon as possible and to establish the House Committee to debate Netanyahu's request," Blue and White leader Benny Gantz said in a statement.

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

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

Under Israeli law, a sitting prime minister is only required to step down once convicted of an offence 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.

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