The first proceedings against a sitting Israeli prime minister are underway, as prosecutors began opening arguments against Benjamin Netanyahu for three separate cases involving charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust.
Both supporters and critics were gathered outside the Jerusalem District Court as Netanyahu and an entourage of attorneys arrived after justices denied his petition not to attend. He has pleaded not guilty to all charges, and contends he is the victim of a politically orchestrated “witch hunt” by the left and media to oust him from power.
Unlike other ministers, Israeli law permits premiers to remain in office unless convicted.
Following is a brief summary of the pending cases:
Netanyahu has been charged with fraud and breach of trust over allegations that he and his wife Sara illegally accepted nearly ₪700,000 shekels ($210,000) worth of gifts from Israeli Hollywood producer Arnon Milchan and Milchan’s friend Australian billionaire businessman James Packer in exchange for favors. The gifts included jewelry, champagne and cigars. Neither Milchan nor Packer have been charged.
Netanyahu allegedly negotiated a deal with Arnon Mozes, owner of Israeli newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth, for improved media coverage in return for the passage of legislation to slow the growth of a rival agency. Netanyahu has been charged with fraud and breach of trust. Mozes, who also denies wrongdoing, has been charged with offering a bribe.
Testimony opened with Case 4000 yesterday, in which prosecutors allege Netanyahu granted regulatory favors worth around ₪1.8 billion shekels (about $500 million) to Bezeq Telecom Israel in exchange for better coverage of himself and his wife on the Walla! news website controlled by the company’s former chairman and his wife, Shaul and Iris Elovitch. Netanyahu has been charged with bribery, fraud and breach of trust. The telecommunications power-couple have been charged with bribery and obstruction of justice, which they deny.
State Prosecutor Liat Ben-Ari argued that “The relationship between Netanyahu and the (co-) defendants became currency, something that could be traded,” adding that “This currency could distort a public servant’s judgment.”
Former Walla! CEO Alan Yeshua, who appeared as a prosecution witness, said that while employed there he had been “barraged” by demands from the Elovitchs and Netanyahu confidantes to promote the prime minister while minimizing or denigrating his political rivals.
“The Elovitchs asked me not to let the editors know that the reason for the requests had to do with imminent regulatory moves,” Yeshua told the court. He added that the demands prompted “daily arguments” with staff who “put up a fight.”
In a video statement posted on his Facebook account after the conclusion of the session, Israel’s longest-serving Premier repeated his accusation that Israeli legal authorities have mounted a politically-biased campaign aimed at removing “a strong right-wing prime minister.”
“This is what a coup attempt looks like,” he said, using a term he has invoked before about the prosecution’s conduct.
Bribery charges carry a prison sentence of up to 10 years and/or a fine, while each charge of fraud and breach of trust are punishable by up to three years in prison.
It is unlikely a verdict will be handed down in the near future, as the trial could take several years to conclude. The proceedings would, however, be halted if Netanyahu sought a plea deal; which so far remains a remote prospect.
Netanyahu’s corruption cases were a polarizing issue in the recent 23 March elections. Thousands of demonstrators gathered weekly outside his official residence and across Israel under the banner of “Crime Minister” to demand he step down. His right-wing power base, meanwhile, remains committed to the man they call “King Bibi” as strong on security and an influential voice for Israel abroad.