JERUSALEM: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was Tuesday formally charged with bribery, fraud and breach of trust, the justice ministry said, shortly after the embattled politician dropped his request for parliamentary immunity.
The indictment came as Netanyahu was in Washington for a meeting with President Donald Trump for the unveiling of a long-awaited US peace plan.
Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit presented the charge sheet to the Jerusalem district court, where Netanyahu will face trial for corruption over gifts and favourable media coverage received in return for regulatory and financial benefits.
Mandelblit had announced his decision to charge Netanyahu in November and presented the charge sheet publicly, but had refrained from the formal move in court “to enable a debate on the prime minister’s request for immunity from parliament”, his office said.
Hours earlier, Netanyahu issued a statement from Washington announcing he would not seek parliamentary immunity.
“A few minutes ago I informed the Knesset speaker that I’m withdrawing the immunity request,” Netanyahu said on Facebook. “I won’t let my political opponents use this issue to disturb the historic move I’m leading.”
Israel’s parliament had been scheduled to vote on Tuesday to convene a committee to 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.
The court will now set a date for the beginning of the trial.
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 trial could even open before March 2, when he will seek re-election in a closely-fought vote pitting his rightwing Likud against the centrist Blue and White party.
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 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.”
Micky Zohar, a lawmaker from Netanyahu’s Likud who had enthusiastically endorsed the original immunity plan, took to social media to defend his party leader’s about-turn.
“The PM’s decision to withdraw his immunity request was necessary, given the insane, hate filled conduct of the Left, led by Blue and White,” he wrote on Twitter.
“Now everything is up to the court, which must do everything to bring justice to light.”
Netanyahu was to appear alongside Trump to make public the peace proposal, which has already been rejected by the Palestinians.
Netanyahu, who also met 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”.
But Nitzan Horowitz, head of the leftwing opposition Meretz party, said Netanyahu was responsible for “the Shame of the Century.”
“The prime minister is indeed making history today… 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.