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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

Go deeper

Updated 5 hours ago - Sports

The potential GOAT of chess faces intriguing challenger

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

The World Chess Championship between Norway's Magnus Carlsen and Russia's Ian Nepomniachtchi began on Friday, 1,094 days after Carlsen won his fourth consecutive title.

Why it matters: During the long, COVID-fueled layoff, chess entered a new era, and with the championship finally here, the age-old game is ready for its close-up.

Department of Interior proposes raising cost of drilling on public lands

A horizontal drilling rig and a pump jack sit on federal land in Lea County, New Mexico. Photo: Callaghan O'Hare/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Oil and gas companies should pay more to drill on federal lands and waters, the Department of the Interior argued in a report released Friday, saying that the current rates were "outdated."

Driving the news: The Department of Interior report said that the federal government's oil and gas leasing and permitting program "fails to provide a fair return to taxpayers, even before factoring in the resulting climate-related costs that must be borne by taxpayers."

7 hours ago - Health

U.S. to restrict air travel from 8 countries over new COVID variant concerns

A COVID-19 vaccine is administered. Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images

The U.S. will impose new air travel restrictions in response to the Omicron variant, a new COVID strain first detected in South Africa, President Biden announced Friday.

The big picture: Air travel from South Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Lesotho, Eswatini, Mozambique and Malawi will be restricted starting on Monday.

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