JERUSALEM — With Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu under indictment, Israel’s Supreme Court on Thursday refused to weigh in on whether a prime ministerial candidate charged with serious crimes can be asked to form a new government.
The decision gave Mr. Netanyahu a temporary reprieve ahead of a general election on March 2, and staved off a potential showdown between the government and the judiciary.
On Wednesday, in his fight for survival, he took the contentious step of asking Parliament to grant him immunity from prosecution. Mr. Netanyahu is Israel’s first sitting prime minister to be charged with crimes, and the first to run for re-election while under such a serious legal cloud.
Dozens of people from Israel’s high-tech industry and academia had petitioned the court to resolve the question of Mr. Netanyahu’s eligibility, after he was indicted in November on charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust in three corruption cases. He has denied any wrongdoing.
During the hearing, the judges made clear that they felt it was premature to rule on the petition before the election — the third in a year — and they appeared far from eager to intervene at such a delicate time.
In their ruling on Thursday, the three senior justices described the election period as a “kingdom of uncertainty,” adding a ruling would significantly depend on the results and which candidate comes out on top.
“The petition is early and theoretical at this time,” they said.
Under Israeli law, a prime minister charged with crimes can remain in office until a final verdict, in part to ensure that the legal authorities cannot topple a prime minister. The resignation of an Israeli leader automatically brings down the government.
There is nothing in the law to stop Mr. Netanyahu, Israel’s longest-serving prime minister, from running for a fourth consecutive term in office, and there is no limit to how many terms he can serve.
Mr. Netanyahu is accused of trading official favors worth hundreds of millions of dollars to Israeli media moguls in exchange for positive news coverage, as well as cigars, champagne and jewelry.
A ruling against Mr. Netanyahu on Thursday could have been seen as interfering in the election campaign, and judges are under pressure from conservative forces in the government that want to curb the judiciary’s influence.
In a video released on Monday, Mr. Netanyahu warned the court that it risked falling into what he called a political trap laid by his opponents. “In a democracy,” he said, “the people are the only ones who decide who leads the people, and nobody else.”
He and his conservative Likud party argued that the judges should reject the petition on the grounds that the matter was not within the purview of the court.
The judges disagreed with that argument, saying the question raised by the petition was “indeed one of principle and important.”
But they said they had decided to act with restraint, this being “the most sensitive and complex period that Israel is experiencing from a political perspective.”