Trial underway: Five questions about Netanyahu's political fate

As Benjamin Netanyahu’s corruption trial begins, he’s also – separately – at risk of losing his position as Israeli prime minister. After inconclusive national elections, Israel’s parliament is trying to form a governing coalition, and it’s not clear if he’ll be included.

Abir Sultan/AP
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends his trial over alleged corruption, in East Jerusalem, April 5, 2021. Mr. Netanyahu still remains popular in Israel among his base, but rivals might oust him from the premiership.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s legal and political troubles will play out simultaneously on Monday, at his corruption trial and in the president’s residence.

Judges ordered Mr. Netanyahu to be in court for the prosecution’s opening argument on three cases involving charges of bribery, fraud, and breach of trust. Meanwhile, Israeli President Reuven Rivlin will begin talks over who should lead the next government after a fourth inconclusive national election on March 23.

Can Mr. Netanyahu remain prime minister while being tried?

Under Israeli law, a prime minister is under no obligation to stand down unless convicted. No other minister is protected in this way, so there are legal and political reasons why Mr. Netanyahu wants to stay at the top.

Mr. Netanyahu has pleaded not guilty. He contends he is the victim of a politically orchestrated “witch hunt” by the left and media to oust him, and that receiving gifts from friends is not against the law.

Could he go to jail?

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

What’s it all about?

There are a couple of different cases prosecutors are putting forward.

In what is known as Case 4000, prosecutors allege Mr. Netanyahu granted regulatory favors worth around 1.8 billion shekels ($500 million) to Bezeq Telecom Israel.

In return, prosecutors say, he sought positive coverage of himself and his wife, Sara, on a news website controlled by the company’s former chairman, Shaul Elovitch.

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 deny wrongdoing.

In a second case, Case 1000, Mr. Netanyahu has been charged with fraud and breach of trust over allegations that he and his wife wrongfully received almost 700,000 shekels worth of gifts from Arnon Milchan, a Hollywood producer and an Israeli citizen, and Australian billionaire businessman James Packer.

Prosecutors said gifts included champagne and cigars and that Mr. Netanyahu helped Mr. Milchan with his business interests. Mr. Packer and Mr. Milchan face no charges.

In Case 2000, Mr. Netanyahu allegedly negotiated a deal with Arnon Mozes, owner of Israeli newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth, for better coverage in return for legislation to slow the growth of a rival newspaper. Mr. Netanyahu has been charged with fraud and breach of trust. Mr. Mozes has been charged with offering a bribe, and denies wrongdoing.

Will a verdict come soon?

It’s unlikely. The trial could take years. But proceedings could be cut short if Mr. Netanyahu seeks a plea deal.

Do Israelis care about the issue?

Yes. The corruption case was a polarizing issue in recent elections.

Thousands of demonstrators have gathered weekly outside his official residence and across Israel under the banner of “Crime Minister,” demanding he quit.

But his right-wing voter base sees “King Bibi” as strong on security and an influential voice for Israel abroad.

Meanwhile, Israel is facing unprecedented political paralysis, an economic crisis brought on by the coronavirus, a new United States administration hoping to revive nuclear talks with Iran, and a looming International Criminal Court war crimes investigation.

This story was reported by Reuters.

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