Occupied Jerusalem: Prosecutors began a pre-indictment hearing for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Wednesday, opening a critical stage in a lengthy legal saga that threatens to end the career of the long-serving Israeli leader and has paralyzed the country’s political system.
Netanyahu’s lawyers sat down with Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit for 11 hours of discussions that will determine whether criminal charges will be pressed against the prime minister in a series of corruption cases.
If formal charges are filed, Netanyahu, who denies any wrongdoing, could come under heavy pressure to step down.
Mandelblit already has recommended that Netanyahu be indicted on fraud, breach of trust and bribery charges in three cases.
Under Israeli law, Netanyahu is entitled to plead his case at a hearing in a last-ditch attempt to persuade prosecutors to drop their case.
Netanyahu did not appear at Wednesday’s hearing, sending instead a high-powered 10-member legal team.
As they entered the Israeli Justice Ministry, his lawyers ruled out a plea bargain and expressed confidence that the charges would be dropped.
His chief opponent, former general Benny Gantz, said he would not serve in a cabinet led by a prime minister who faces indictment.
Here is a guide to the criminal cases surrounding Netanyahu:
What are the allegations against Netanyahu?
The attorney-general announced in February that he intends to file criminal charges against Netanyahu in investigations listed as cases 4000, 1000 and 2000, pending the outcome of the hearings. Netanyahu could face fraud and breach of trust charges in all three cases, and bribery charges in case 4000.
Netanyahu says he is the victim of a politically orchestrated “witch-hunt” by the media and the left to oust him from office.
CASE 4000 alleges that Netanyahu granted regulatory favours to Israel’s leading telecommunications company, Bezeq Telecom Israel, in return for positive coverage of him and his wife Sara on a news website controlled by the company’s former chairman.
CASE 1000 alleges that Netanyahu and his wife wrongfully received gifts from Arnon Milchan, a prominent Hollywood producer and an Israeli citizen, and Australian billionaire businessman James Packer, including champagne and cigars.
In CASE 2000, Netanyahu is suspected of negotiating a deal with the owner of Israel’s best-selling daily newspaper, Yedioth Ahronoth, for better coverage in return for legislation that would slow the growth of a rival daily newspaper.
What is the purpose of the pre-trial hearings?
They grant the prime minister’s legal team a chance to argue against the prospective charges and to convince the attorney-general to scrap or reduce them. Netanyahu is not expected to attend the hearings, which will be held on four days, ending next Monday.
After hearing the arguments, the attorney-general is expected to decide by the end of December whether to indict Netanyahu.
What happens if Netanyahu is charged?
If Netanyahu is indicted it could take many months before his trial begins. He could also seek a plea deal rather than stand trial.
If still serving as prime minister, Netanyahu would be under no strict legal obligation to quit. According to Israeli law, a prime minister must step down if ultimately convicted, but can stay in office throughout legal proceedings, including appeals.
Netanyahu’s supporters in parliament have said they would support granting him immunity from prosecution. But it is unclear whether there are enough lawmakers to back such a move.
If convicted what does Netanyahu face?
Bribery charges carry a sentence of up to 10 years in jail and/or a fine. Fraud and breach of trust carry a prison sentence of up to three years.