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Netanyahu says drops request for immunity from graft charges

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Jerusalem (AFP)

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Tuesday that he had dropped his request for parliamentary immunity from corruption charges, in a move likely to speed the opening of his trial.

The announcement came hours before he was to meet in the White House with President Donald Trump for the unveiling of a long-awaited US peace plan.

"A few minutes ago I informed the Knesset speaker that I'm withdrawing the immunity request," Netanyahu wrote on Facebook. "I won't let my political opponents use this issue to disturb the historic move I'm leading."

The Knesset, Israel's parliament had been scheduled to vote on Tuesday morning to convene a committee to debate and eventually rule on the request.

"In this fateful moment for the people of Israel, while I'm in the US on a historic mission to form Israel's final borders and ensure our security for future generations, another immunity circus show is due to open at the Knesset," Netanyahu said.

Netanyahu denies the charges against him and says he is the victim of a politically motivated witch-hunt.

His opponents had already mustered a majority in the legislature to deny him immunity.

Labour Party leader Amir Peretz welcomed Netanyahu's announcement.

"It's good the prime minister did what should have been done and gave up on his request for immunity," he told AFP.

"I therefore hope that the prime minister will take the next step and decide to completely resign, go to court as a regular citizen and try to prove his innocence," he said.

- 'Shame of the century' -

Netanyahu's decision opens the way for Israeli authorities to go ahead and set a date for the premier's trial on charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust.

It could even open before March 2, when Netanyahu seeks reelection in a general election which pits his right-wing Likud against the centrist Blue and White party in what is likely to be a close contest.

Likud and Blue and White were deadlocked in April and September elections, triggering a third general election within a year.

Blue and White leader Benny Gantz, who met with Trump on Monday, said voters should not elect a candidate too busy fighting legal battles to run the country.

"Netanyahu is going on trial," he wrote on Twitter. "Israeli citizens have a clear choice: a prime minister who will work for them, or a prime minister busy with himself."

Netanyahu is to appear alongside Trump to make public the plan to resolve the dispute with the Palestinians, although they say they have not taken part in its drafting and they have fiercely condemned it in advance.

Netanyahu, who also had a meeting with Trump on Monday, praised the president as "the greatest friend that Israel had had in the White House," and described the peace plan as "the deal of the century".

Nitzan Horowitz, head of the left-wing opposition Meretz party, said Netanyahu's impending trial was "the shame of the century".

"The prime minister is indeed making history today, and is accountable for the Shame of the Century - the first serving prime minister standing trial for bribery, fraud and breach of trust," he said in a statement.

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.

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