Netanyahu in the dock: image of Israeli PM on trial may haunt him for ever

A protest against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at Rabin Square in Tel Aviv (Daniel Bar On - Anadolu Agency)

Oliver Holmes

The Observer  /  May 24, 2020

If convicted on corruption charges, country’s longest-serving leader could be sentenced to more than a decade in jail.

Accepting lavish gifts of pink champagne and boxes of Cuban cigars; colluding with one Israeli media mogul to publish positive news stories about him; bribing another to smear his political opponents. These are the damning accusations that Benjamin Netanyahu will face on the first day of a high-profile trial that kicks off today.

A week to the day after he was sworn into power for a fourth consecutive term, Israel’s longest-serving leader will add a new record to his collection – the first sitting prime minister to face criminal charges in court.

Proceedings are expected to be brief and technical, beginning at 3pm (noon GMT) with the court reading out charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust. Despite the formalities, the hearing is the culmination of years of police investigations and intense public focus.

Netanyahu, 70, has forcefully denied the allegations, dismissing the charges as a politically motivated witch-hunt. Perhaps fearing the negative visuals of appearing in a Jerusalem courtroom, his lawyers tried and failed to have him exempted.

A photo of the prime minister in the dock would severely dent his self-made “strong leader” image, argued local columnist Ben Caspit. “Netanyahu knows that this will be one of the most highly viewed pictures in history,” he wrote in Maariv newspaper last week. “He knows that it will be one of the first pictures in his Wikipedia entry. He knows that this image will be engraved in the consciousness of millions of people, if not more.”

Indicted last year in three separate cases, the right-wing politician faces more than a decade in prison if convicted. Hearings were supposed to begin in March but were delayed after courts restricted activities as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. The case, with hundreds of witnesses, could last months, if not years.

The first charge, known as case 1,000, involves allegations of receiving gifts such as cigars, champagne and jewellery, from billionaires, including the Hollywood businessman Arnon Milchan and Australian casino operator James Packer, allegedly in exchange for favours.

The indictment estimated the value of the presents at about £150,000 [€163.000]. In return, Netanyahu helped Milchan, an Israeli who produced the film Pretty Woman, to extend his US visa, according to the indictment. It was not clear what Packer received for his gifts, if anything. Milchan and Packer are not facing any charges.

In case 2,000, Netanyahu is accused of colluding with the country’s top-selling newspaper, Yedioth Ahronoth, to hurt its competition in exchange for favourable coverage of him and his family.

The third and most serious charge, case 4,000, also relates to Netanyahu’s alleged attempts to shape his public image. The prime minister is accused of offering incentives worth close to £200m [€225 m] to the Israeli telecoms provider Bezeq in exchange for what prosecutors allege was deep editorial control of Walla, a well-read news website that it owns.


Oliver Holmes is the Jerusalem correspondent for The Guardian