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Photo: Horacio Villalobos/Corbis via Getty Images

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced Wednesday that he will ask the Knesset, Israel's parliament, for immunity from his pending corruption charges.

Why it matters: The request by Netanyahu will likely delay any trial until after the country's elections in March — its third attempt to elect a stable majority government in a year. It essentially turns the March vote into a referendum on Netanyahu's political and legal future.

  • This is the first time Netanyahu had admitted that he wants to get parliamentary immunity to prevent his trial from starting.
  • During the April 2019 election campaign, he denied on camera that he would try to promote any step to dodge a trial.
  • A majority of Israelis oppose granting Netanyahu immunity from the charges.

What he's saying: In a live primetime televised statement, Netanyahu said that the immunity would only be temporary and end once he finishes serving as a member of Knesset.

  • He added that his comments on immunity before the April elections do not contradict his current request.
  • He once again claimed to be the victim of a witch hunt by the police, the state prosecutors and the bureaucracy — and previously called the charges an "attempted coup."

The other side: Netanyahu's political rival Benny Gantz told the press that the prime minister's immunity request endangers the principle that all are equal before the law and harms Israeli democracy.

  • Gantz said Netanyahu was afraid to go to trial because he knows he is guilty, adding, "The choice in the upcoming elections is between an immunity government and a unity government — the kingdom of Netanyahu or the state of Israel."

The backdrop: Netanyahu was indicted on charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust.

  • The biggest case concerns his and his wife's relationship with Israel's leading telecommunications tycoon.
  • According to a police statement, Netanyahu, who at the time was also the telecom minister, allegedly gave Shaul Elovitz regulatory benefits worth hundreds of millions of dollars. In return, Netanyahu and his wife were allegedly allowed to demand positive coverage from one of Israel's major news websites, owned by Elovitz.
  • The prime minister alleged during his televised address today that is he being targeted in an rigged conspiracy. He has previously called the charges an "attempted coup" and a witch hunt.

What's next: Netanyahu immunity request starts a separate process inside the Knesset to vote on it in a special committee. Because the Knesset dissolved itself several weeks ago, there will have to be a special vote on forming such a committee.

  • The speaker of the Knesset, Yuli Adelstein, is from Netanyahu's Likud party and can prevent the formation of the committee — a step which would further complicate the situation and could lead to a showdown in the Supreme Court.
  • If the committee is formed before the March elections, Netanyahu will be in a very tough spot because he will not be able to win an immunity vote in the current Knesset. Former defense minister Avigdor Lieberman announced today that his party, Israel Beitenu, will vote against giving Netanyahu immunity, making it clear that there is a majority for denying Netanyahu’s request.
  • Netanyahu is betting that the committee will not be formed before the March elections, allowing him to obtain a 61-member majority in the next Knesset that would vote in favor of his request.

Go deeper: International Criminal Court moves closer to investigation of Israel

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