Trial of Benjamin Netanyahu explained: Why is the Israeli prime minister on trial ?

Mona Farag

The National  /  February 8, 2021

The Israeli Prime Minister is back in court on Monday to enter a plea to charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is back in court on Monday as his corruption trial resumes and Israel’s longest-serving leader will have to enter his plea to charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust.

Involving secret recordings, media moguls, gifts of cigars and champagne and aides’ betrayals, the three corruption cases have all the makings of a political thriller.

Will it bring Mr Netanyahu down ?

Mr Netanyahu is the longest sitting Israeli prime minister in the country’s history and at the age of 71, he has been in office continuously since 2009 and served before that from 1996 to 1999.

He has weathered the ups and downs of office and managed to stay in power throughout the investigation – even with three elections and a fourth due on March 23.

He denies any wrongdoing and a trial is likely to take years.

He will fight to remain prime minister in March and possibly for years afterwards.

If he wins, he could try to secure parliamentary immunity, or pass laws to exempt a serving prime minister from standing trial.

Why hasn’t he stepped down ?

Under Israeli law, a sitting prime minister does not have immunity from prosecution, and while he is the first premier to be indicted while in office he has obliged to resign unless convicted.

A convicted prime minister can also theoretically stay in office until all avenues of appeal have been exhausted – a process that could take up to several months or years.

Former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert stepped down as party leader when he was under investigation for corruption in 2008, but technically remained prime minister until elections the following year – polls which brought Mr Netanyahu to power

Olmert went on trial in 2009, and was convicted. But he only began serving his sentence in 2016, due to the long legal process.

Do Israelis care ?

Yes. The corruption case has had a polarising impact on Israelis.

Thousands of demonstrators gather weekly outside his official residence and across Israel under the banner of “Crime Minister”, demanding he quit. This continued during the Covid-19 pandemic and orders barring people travelling more than a short distance from their homes to contain the virus.

But, his right-wing voter base has stayed loyal and he continues to come out top in elections despite the scandal. Supporters see the man they call King Bibi as strong on security and an influential voice for Israel abroad.

What are the charges ?

Case 1000, including charges of fraud and breach of trust

Mr Netanyahu and his wife Sara have been accused of illicitly accepting around $200,000 in gifts including cigars and bottles of champagne from two billionaires – Hollywood-based Israeli movie mogul Arnon Milchan and Australian magnate James Packer.

Mr Netanyahu has claimed that they were tokens of friendship and that he did not act inappropriately in exchange for them. Prosecutors allege they curried favour with the prime minister to help Mr Milchan with his business interests and to gain Mr Packer favours over a decade.

Mr Milchan and Mr Packer are not facing any charges and have denied any wrongdoing.

Case 2000, including charges of fraud and breach of trust

Mr Netanyahu is accused of striking a deal with Israeli media mogul Arnon Mozes – who owns Yedioth Ahronoth, the country’s biggest newspaper by circulation. The deal allegedly secured the prime minister better coverage in return for legislation that would slow the growth of a rival newspaper to Yedioth Ahronoth.

Mr Mozes was also charged with bribery in this case but also denies wrongdoing.

Case 4000, including charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust

Case 4000 is the big one.

In addition to his position as premier, Mr Netanyahu held the post of communications minister from 2014 to 2017, and prosecutors allege he agreed a “reciprocal arrangement” with Shaul Elovitch, the controlling shareholder in Israel’s biggest telecoms company “Bezeq,” which owned the news website Walla.

Mr Netanyahu is accused of promoting regulatory decisions favourable to Mr Elovitch in exchange for positive coverage by Walla.

In this case, Mr Netanyahu has been charged with bribery, fraud and breach of trust. Mr Elovitch and his wife, Iris, have been charged with bribery and obstruction of justice. The couple denies wrongdoing.

What are the cases built on ?

So far, the prosecution has assembled more than 300 witnesses to support these allegations.

Mr Netanyahu’s lawyers have tried to both delay and discredit the proceedings, by filing complaints against the prosecution, and claiming that police investigators used illegitimate means to secure evidence, in an attempt to get the charges disqualified.

What is the hold up ?

The trial began last year with Mr Netanyahu attending the first hearing on May 24, 2020, speaking only to identify himself and confirm he had read and understood the charges.

Mr Netanyahu was granted an exemption from appearing at later, more procedural stages of the trial.

But the trial, presided over by judges Moshe Bar-Am, Rebecca Friedman-Feldman and Oded Shaham, has been delayed several times due to coronavirus lockdowns. It was supposed to resume in January but a third national lockdown delayed it again.

Last month, the court also ordered the prosecution to amend the charges against Mr Netanyahu to differentiate between him and his family members, who appear in the charges but are not on trial.

In a live Facebook broadcast before entering the courtroom on May 24, he criticised what he called the “fabricated and ludicrous” accusations.

He says he is the victim of a politically orchestrated “witch hunt” by the left and media to oust him from office, and that receiving gifts from friends is not against the law.

Rival turned coalition partner Benny Gantz campaigned heavily on Mr Netanyahu’s corruption allegations but when they were in partnership said that, like every citizen, the prime minister was entitled to a fair trial and the presumption of innocence.

Opposition leader Yair Lapid, a former partner of Mr Gantz, said Mr Netanyahu could not lead the country while standing trial and suggested the impact of the lockdown on the court system could be politically motivated.

“There is a true fear he will make decisions based on his personal survival interests, and not the national interest,” he tweeted.

Could he go to jail ?

Bribery charges carry a jail sentence of up to 10 years and/or a fine. Fraud and breach of trust carry a sentence of up to three years.

Will a verdict come soon ?

Unlikely. The trial could take years. But, proceedings could be cut short if Mr Netanyahu seeks a plea deal.

Mona Farag – Arab Affairs Editor, Abu Dhabi