Prosecutors say Israel’s longest-serving Prime Minister used his political influence as ‘currency’ to buy favours from media executives and wealthy businessmen.
The evidentiary phase of the trial was beginning as Israel’s political parties were meeting the country’s president to weigh in on whether Netanyahu should form the next government after a close election or step down to focus on his legal woes.
Between witness testimony in a Jerusalem courtroom and the consultations at the president’s office across town, it promised to be a day of extraordinary political drama, bringing into sharp focus Netanyahu’s efforts to stay in power.
He is Israel’s longest-serving prime minister and has clung to power through four hard-fought elections in less than two years, even as he has faced allegations of bribery, fraud and breach of trust.
The March 23 election was largely a referendum on his leadership but produced no clear verdict.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appeared in court today (pictured) at his corruption trial to hear prosecutors make their allegations against him
Israel’s political parties began meeting President Reuven Rivlin to recommend which candidate should be tasked with forming the next government.
After each election, Israel’s president is responsible for designating a party leader to try to put together a governing majority. T
hat decision is usually clear cut, but Mr Rivlin faces a difficult choice given the fragmented election results that left the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, divided between 13 parties with broad ideological differences.
Neither Netanyahu’s allies nor his foes secured a governing majority in the Knesset, Israel’s parliament.
So his fate could come down to Naftali Bennett, a right-wing former ally with whom he has strained ties, and Mansour Abbas, the leader of a small Arab Islamist party who also has yet to commit to either the pro or anti-Netanyahu blocs.
Later on Monday, Mr Bennett recommended himself as the next prime minister, deepening Israel’s political deadlock. His right-wing Yamina party had been in a position to serve as a kingmaker but it declined to take sides.
Yamina has just seven seats in parliament, making it a long shot to be able to form a governing coalition. Mr Bennett is hoping he can become a consensus candidate who can bridge the deep divides between the rival factions.
Mr Rivlin was earlier quoted by Israeli media as saying he did not see how any ruling coalition could be formed and expressing concern Israel would go into a fifth round of elections.
Prosecutors say Israel’s longest-serving Prime Minister used his political influence as ‘currency’ to buy favours from media executives and wealth businessmen. Pictured: The court files are brought to the Jerusalem District Court ahead of the third hearing of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in East Jerusalem on April 5
The three key cases brought against ‘Bibi’
Fraud and breach of trust
The first case officially opened in 2016, and involves valuable presents and gifts – such as cigars and bottoms of champagne – allegedly received by Netanyahu and his wife from several wealth acquaintances in exchange for favours.
Fraud and breach of trust
The second case relates to recorded conversations between Netanyahu and Arnon Mozes, chairman and editor of Yedioth Ahronoth, one of the largest newspapers in circulation in Israel.
The conversations are said to have discussed legislation that could harm a major competitor of the newspaper – Israel Hayom, despite it being seen as pro-Netanyahu. In exchange, Netanyahu is said to have received positive coverage.
Bribery, fraud and breach of trust
The fourth case alleges that Netanyahu promoted regulatory decisions favourable to the controlling shareholder in the Bezeq telecom giant, Shaul Elovitch.
Netanyahu was both Prime Minister and minister of communications at the time, and is said to have received positive coverage by by Mr Elovitch’s Walla news site in exchange.
At the Jerusalem District Court, Netanyahu sat with his lawyers as lead prosecutor Liat Ben-Ari read out the charges against him.
‘The relationship between Netanyahu and the defendants became currency, something that could be traded,’ she said. ‘The currency could distort a public servant’s judgment.’
Netanyahu’s lawyers sought to make a rebuttal but were cut off by Judge Rivka Friedman-Feldman, who said they had already responded to the charges earlier in the trial.
The judge then ordered a brief recess, during which Netanyahu left the courthouse.
Outside the courtroom, dozens of supporters and opponents of the prime minister gathered to protest on opposite sides of the building amid a heavy police presence, highlighting Israel’s deep divisions.
Anti-Netanyahu protesters have held weekly demonstrations for months, calling on him to resign.
Just a few miles away, a delegation from Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud party formally recommended him as prime minister in a meeting with Mr Rivlin.
Netanyahu is charged with accepting bribes, fraud and breach of trust in three cases. The first involves him allegedly receiving gifts worth hundreds of thousands of dollars from wealthy friends, including Hollywood film producer Arnon Milchan and Australian billionaire James Packer.
In the second case, he is accused of trying to orchestrate positive coverage in a major Israeli paper in exchange for curbing distribution of a free pro-Netanyahu tabloid.
The third, dubbed Case 4000, which will be the focus of Monday’s first witness testimony, alleges that he backed legislation worth hundreds of millions of dollars to the owner of Israeli telecom giant Bezeq in return for positive coverage on its news site Walla.
Outside the courtroom, dozens of supporters and opponents of the prime minister gathered to protest on opposite sides of the building amid a heavy police presence, highlighting Israel’s deep divisions. Pictured: A protester wearing a mask, depicting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, attends a gathering outside the district court in Jerusalem on April 5
Netanyahu has denied any wrongdoing, dismissing the charges against him as part of a media and law enforcement ‘witch hunt’ to unseat him. His trial began last year and could last for another two years.
In January, prosecutors alleged 315 instances of Walla being requested to amend its coverage so it was more favourable to Netanyahu and his family. They said 150 of them involved Netanyahu himself.
According to the charges, Shaul Elovitch, CEO of Bezeq, ‘exerted heavy and continuous pressure’ on Ilan Yeshua, the former chief editor of Walla, to change articles on the website to meet the demands of Netanyahu and his family.
Pictured: Supporters of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gather outside the district court in Jerusalem on April 5, 2021. Netanyahu is charged with accepting bribes, fraud and breach of trust in three cases
Mr Yeshua, who took the stand after Netanyahu left, said he regularly received requests from Mr Elovitch and aides to the prime minister, asking him to smear the prime minister’s political opponents, including Mr Bennett. He said he then passed along the requests to the site’s top editors.
Mr Bennett, who could play a major role in the formation of the next government, was referred to as the ‘naughty religious one’ in the internal messages, Mr Yeshua said.
Israeli law does not require prime ministers to resign while under indictment, and Netanyahu has refused to do so.
That has left the country deeply divided. Am emergency unity government formed last year to address the coronavirus crisis was mired in political bickering and fell apart in less than a year over its inability to approve a budget.
Netanyahu passed Israel’s founding father David Ben Gurion in 2019 as the country’s longest-serving prime minister, having held the office continuously since 2009 and for several years in the 1990s.
Israel has now given two doses of COVID-19 vaccine to more than half its population
More than half of Israel’s 8.6 million population has been fully vaccinated with two doses of protection against Covid-19, the country’s health minister announced last week.
Israel’s rapid progress means more than 4.6million people have had two jabs and are eligible for a so-called ‘green pass’ in a scheme being closely watched by other countries.
Around 60 per cent have had a first dose, the highest figure for any country in the world and one of the few ahead of the UK where 41 per cent have had a jab.
According to official data, Israel has given out over 10 million doses of coronavirus vaccines – more than its total population of over 8.6 million – putting its vaccination rate at 116.2 per 100 people.
Of those, over 4.8 million have been fully vaccinated with two doses.
People sit at cafe terraces in Jerusalem on March 9, 2021, after Israeli authorities reopened restaurants, bars and cafes to vaccinated ‘green pass’ holders
Studies of the real-world Israeli data have shown the jabs both slashing the number of symptomatic cases and also appearing to reduce transmission of the virus.
Israel began easing a nationwide lockdown in late February, with most businesses and schools gradually resuming activity with limits on capacity.
Along with the people who are fully vaccinated, another 8.7 per cent of the population are presumed immune after previously recovering from Covid-19.
That makes the majority of the population eligible for the so-called ‘green pass’ certificates that allow access to various leisure venues.
Hezi Levi, the director-general of Israel’s health ministry, has estimated that the entire adult population will be fully inoculated by the end of May.
About a third of the country is under 16 and cannot be vaccinated until the shot is deemed safe for children.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, holds a “Green Pass,” for citizens vaccinated against COVID-19, as he visits a fitness gym with Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz, second right
This month the health ministry said that recovered Covid-19 patients could get vaccinated with a single jab administered at least three months after recovery.
Israel recorded zero coronavirus deaths on Friday for the first time since June 29 last year, and 251 new cases. In total, the country has seen 834,247 cases and 6,243 deaths.
The country has also seen a drop in the number of coronavirus ICU patients, currently at 24.7 per million, down from over 45 per million in February.