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Israeli PM Netanyahu resigns from all ministerial posts over criminal charges

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Israeli PM Netanyahu resigns from all ministerial posts over criminal charges
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Abir Sultan /Pool photo via AP - ABIR SULTAN
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Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has officially resigned from all of his ministerial posts, a requirement of the corruption indictment levied against him.

Netanyahu held four portfolios in addition to being prime minister, health, welfare, agriculture and diaspora affairs. Israeli law does not allow an individual indicted for crimes to hold ministerial office, although it does not prevent them from serving as prime minister.

He has only named one replacement so far, a new minister for health affairs, Jakov Litzman.

On January 1, 2020, Netanyahu was the first Israeli prime minister in history to seek immunity from corruption charges, including bribery, breach of trust and fraud in November. He has denied any wrongdoing.

In a televised address, Netanyahu - who took Israel into two elections in 2019, both of which were too close for a clear winner to emerge - repeated his claim that he is the victim of a conspiracy.

He will ask the Israeli parliament - the Knesset - for immunity in a move that is expected to delay his trial.

Netanyahu will be seeking to win national elections in March, the unprecedented third election in a year. Last week, he won a landslide victory in his political party's leadership contest.

Read more: Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu rejects corruption charges as an 'attempted coup'

Israel's third election in two years could serve to simply preserve and strengthen the country's political deadlock, argues Hugh Lovatt, at the European Council of Foreign Relations, especially as there is no reason to assume that the result will be any more conclusive than the last two polls.

But this situation could help Netanyahu - by making it impossible for the Knesset to form a committee to hear his immunity request, for example, and therefore delaying his court hearing. Ultimately, though, the situation does not look good for the Israeli prime minister.

"Never bet against Netanyahu, but it does seem his options are narrowing. He is reduced to playing for time, fighting each day as it comes, but with an increasingly narrowing escape path," he said.

Speaking on Thursday, Netanyahu rival and Blue and White leader Benny Gantz said it was a "sad day".

"I never imagined that we would see the day that the prime minister of Israel would avoid standing before the law and the justice system,'' he said. "Today it's clear what we're fighting for. Netanyahu knows he's guilty.''

Netanyahu needs a 61-seat majority in favour of immunity to avoid prosecution, but has struggled to bring together Israel's disparate political groupings to form a coalition after two attempts in 2019. A key issue has been one-time Netanyahu ally Avigdor Lieberman.

Lieberman turned against his boss and backed Gantz after the last election, but Gantz was unable to assemble a ruling coalition without the support of the Arab parties in Israel, which Lieberman rejects.

Lieberman has committed to supporting a Likud government in Israel, but not with Netanyahu as prime minister. For Netanyahu, meanwhile, staying on as prime minister is an existential issue, because if he loses power he would be deprived of the option of immunity on corruption charges.

Netanyahu will not have forgotten the example of Ehud Olmert, the former prime minister who was jailed on corruption charges in 2014 after resigning as leader before indictments were issued against him. At the time, he said: "The prime minister is not above the law."

"Ultimately, while praised for stepping down, Olmert ended up in prison a few years later. The lesson that Netanyahu may have taken away is that is better to fight corruption charges as a standing prime minister," Lovatt said.

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