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Netanyahu withdraws bid for immunity from corruption prosecution

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends the weekly cabinet meeting at his office in Jerusalem, 15 July 2018. EPA-EFE/RONEN ZVULUN / POOL

JERUSALEM, Jan 28 (Reuters) - Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Tuesday withdrew his bid for parliamentary immunity from prosecution on corruption charges, making a criminal trial against him a near certainty.

Israel’s longest-serving prime minister said in a statement that an immunity debate in parliament would have been a “circus” and he did not want to take part in this “dirty game”.

Netanyahu, who denies all wrongdoing, said: “I informed the Knesset speaker that I am withdrawing my immunity request.”

The legal proceedings now move toward trial, though a timeline remains unclear and it could take months or years.

The veteran right-winger, who faces a national election in March, is under no legal obligation to resign.

Netanyahu, 70, is now in Washington for meetings with U.S. President Donald Trump ahead of the release of Trump’s long-delayed Israel-Palestinian peace plan, which the Palestinians have already rejected.

Netanyahu’s main rival, centrist former general Benny Gantz, made Netanyahu’s legal troubles a centrepiece of his campaigns in two Israeli elections last year.

Gantz made a brief trip to Washington to discuss the peace plan with Trump, and had rushed back to Israel expecting to lead the parliament debate against granting Netanyahu immunity.

“Netanyahu is going to trial – we have to move on,” Gantz said after Netanyahu pulled his immunity request.

“The citizens of Israel have a clear choice: a prime minister who works for them or a prime minister busy with himself. No one can manage the country and in parallel manage three serious criminal cases,” Gantz said in a tweet.

Israelis attorney general Avichai Mandelblit indicted Netanyahu on corruption charges – the first of their kind against a serving Israeli prime minister – last November following a long-running investigation. The charges included bribery, breach of trust and fraud.

Netanyahu is suspected of wrongfully accepting $264,000 worth of gifts, which prosecutors said included cigars and champagne, from tycoons and of dispensing regulatory favours in alleged bids for improved coverage by a popular news website. Netanyahu could face up to 10 years in prison if convicted of bribery and a maximum three-year term for fraud and breach of trust. (Reporting by Stephen Farrell and Ari Rabinovitch. Editing by Angus MacSwan)

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