Jerusalem: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel pleaded not guilty on Monday in his trial on bribery, fraud and breach of trust charges, a case that has dominated Israel’s political life and sparked a debate about the state of Israeli democracy and the country’s legal system. It has also contributed to a split in Netanyahu’s own political party and could define the buildup to next month’s general election - Israel’s fourth in two years.
Here are details about the charges and their context.
Indicted in November 2019
The police investigations that led to Netanyahu’s trial began in 2016, and the police formally recommended he be prosecuted in February 2018. He was indicted in November 2019 and the trial itself began in May 2020 - but has since been delayed several times by coronavirus restrictions.
The trial combines three separate cases, known as Cases 1000, 2000 and 4000. Netanyahu has been cleared of involvement in a fourth case, Case 3000, which concerns the government’s procurement of German-made submarines.
$300,000 in gifts
The indictment accuses Netanyahu of accepting nearly $300,000 in gifts, including cigars and Champagne, from 2007 to 2016 from two businessmen: Hollywood producer Arnon Milchan and Australian billionaire James Packer.
In return, prosecutors say, the prime minister acted on Milchan’s behalf, including by pressuring the Finance Ministry to double the duration of a tax exemption for expatriate Israelis like Milchan after they return to the country from abroad.
The indictment alleges that Netanyahu also lobbied the US government to help Milchan renew his American visa, and assisted with a merger deal involving a television channel owned in part by Milchan.
There is no accusation that Packer received anything in return for his gifts.
Like Netanyahu, Milchan and Packer deny wrongdoing, and the two men are not on trial. Netanyahu’s wife, Sara, is also said to have received gifts, but is not a defendant in the trial.
Netanyahu is alleged to have discussed a quid pro quo arrangement in 2014 with Arnon Mozes, the publisher of Yediot Aharonot, one of Israel’s leading newspapers.
Under the deal as described in the charges, Netanyahu was meant to receive supportive coverage from the paper. In exchange, Netanyahu is accused of agreeing to consider enacting legislation that would curb the strength of Israel Hayom, a rival newspaper that was owned by Sheldon Adelson, a supporter of Netanyahu. But Netanyahu is not accused of following through on that promise.
Mozes, also on trial, denies wrongdoing.
No disruption, please
From 2012 to 2017, Shaul Elovitch, a telecom mogul, and his wife, Iris, are accused of granting favors to Netanyahu and his family in the hope that Netanyahu would not obstruct the Elovitches’ business interests.
In particular, Elovitch is alleged to have repeatedly allowed Netanyahu and his family to shape the coverage of his news website, Walla. In return, Elovitch hoped the prime minister would do nothing to disrupt his various business interests, including allowing the smooth passage of a complex merger between the telecom company he formerly owned, Bezeq, and his satellite television provider, Yes.
The Elovitches are also on trial and deny wrongdoing.
Not obliged to step down
Netanyahu is not legally obliged to step down. Though other government ministers must resign if charged, prime ministers can remain in office until they are convicted.
When one of Netanyahu’s predecessors, Ehud Olmert, was accused of corruption in 2008, Netanyahu helped prompt Olmert’s resignation, arguing that Olmert would be too distracted to do his job properly.
But a decade later, Netanyahu has refused to follow his own advice, becoming the first Israeli leader to face trial while still in office.
He says he will leave office only through the ballot box, arguing that the charges against him are trumped up, and fostered by unelected bureaucrats seeking to force him out of office against the will of the electorate.
No verdict for years?
If convicted, Netanyahu could be sentenced to several years in jail - but the judges will not reach a verdict for months, or even years. The trial has already been delayed several times by coronavirus restrictions, and even once the pandemic subsides, the court will not meet every day.
Judges are currently considering a request from Netanyahu’s lawyers to delay the hearing of prosecution witnesses until after the election.
Many analysts don’t expect the trial to significantly affect voting patterns in the election. The allegations against Netanyahu have been a part of public discourse for so long that many Israelis formed fixed opinions about them even before the trial began.
The trial has nevertheless caused a split in Netanyahu’s party, Likud.
One of his former allies, Gideon Saar, has formed his own breakaway group, New Hope, and seeks to attract Likud voters who have grown uncomfortable with Netanyahu’s personal behaviour. But Saar trails Netanyahu in the polls, and appears to be eating into the vote shares of other anti-Netanyahu parties, making it harder for Saar to form a governing coalition.