Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu (center) confers with his attorneys in a Jerusalem courtroom on May 24, the first day of his corruption trial. (Ronen Zvulun - pool/AFP via Getty Images)

From the PM’s Office to the Docket: Israel’s Netanyahu Goes on Trial

Prime minister is country’s first sitting leader to battle criminal charges in court

Exactly one week after being sworn in to lead Israel for a fifth term, Binyamin Netanyahu became the country’s first-ever sitting prime minister to go on trial when he appeared on Sunday at 3 p.m. local time in the Jerusalem District Court.

He has been charged with fraud and breach of trust in three separate cases. In one of those cases, known as File 4000, he has also been charged with bribery, a far more serious crime.

In that case, Netanyahu is suspected of soliciting positive media coverage for himself and his family from the owner of the popular Walla news site, Shaul Elovitch, who is the controlling shareholder in the Bezeq communications giant. In return, the prime minister allegedly helped Bezeq buy the Israeli satellite cable provider Yes while overriding anti-trust issues raised by ministry officials, including huge regulatory fees.

In File 1000, the prime minister is accused of accepting lavish gifts in return for providing favors to wealthy benefactors. In File 2000, he allegedly sought to trade benefits to Arnon Mozes, whose family owns the Yediot Aharonot daily, also in return for positive coverage.

The three presiding judges are Moshe Bar-Am, Oded Shaham and, as lead judge, Rivka Friedman-Feldman, who on Sunday began by reading out the charge sheet against the prime minister and the other defendants: Elovitch and his wife Iris, and Mozes.

The lead prosecutor in the trial is Liat Ben-Ari, whereas Netanyahu is being represented by Micha Feitman and Amit Hadad.

Arriving at the courthouse flanked by senior Likud figures, the prime minister thanked his backers, saying “your incredible support warms my heart. I know that the people of Israel are behind me.”

He then went on the offensive, claiming that an “attempted political coup” was behind it all.

“The police, prosecution, press and the Left, as well as the legal establishment, joined together to bring me down because I do not want to evacuate Jewish communities in Judea and Samaria,” he insisted, using the biblical names for the West Bank.

Although calling for the trial to be broadcast on television networks, Netanyahu, who is renowned for planning the optics of every public appearance down to the minutest detail, refused to take his seat until journalists were asked to leave the Courtroom 317. The only video camera remaining was for the most part aimed at the prime minister’s back.

“During the session, the justices mainly focused on technical and procedural matters, including whether Netanyahu understands the indictment, as well as determining the timeframe for the resumption of the trial based on an [anticipated] strategy by the premier’s lawyers to ask for time over the claim that they have not received all related materials from the prosecution,” Kobi Sudri, an expert on Israeli law, told The Media Line.

In this respect, the defense requested that the next session be set for spring 2021 to allow it time to go over the evidence as well as wrangle with the prosecution for additional documents that have not been released.

Specifically, Feitman stated that Netanyahu’s legal team would need up to 90 days to formulate a tactical approach, after which pretrial motions seeking immediate acquittal would be filed along with those attacking the prosecution’s demand to keep some records confidential.

Prosecutor Ben-Ari, in turn, said the defense had received everything it needed over a year ago, saying the move was aimed at postponing the trial, which she suggested could begin in three to four months.

The judges said that at the next hearing, scheduled for July 9, they would issue a decision on when the evidentiary proceedings would begin.

Irrespective, Sudri does not believe that any of the prosecution’s 333 witnesses will give testimony before year’s end, noting that many will not even appear, with associated evidence simply being presented by the state. He also clarified that Netanyahu will not have to attend most of the future hearings.

Moreover, he pointed to November 2021 as a possible turning point, as Netanyahu is slated at that time to hand over the reins of power to Blue and White party chief Benny Gantz. The defendant will then assume the role of the newly created position of alternate prime minister.

While legal precedent requires an Israeli prime minister to resign once convicted of a crime and out of avenues of appeal, all other ministers must immediately step down if indicted. Whereas the coalition deal struck between Netanyahu and Gantz stipulates that neither will be required to leave their post for any reason during the government’s three-year term, Sudri envisions a potential showdown with the Supreme Court.

“Once Netanyahu changes [posts], there will be new petitions filed calling for him to be ousted,” Sudri explained. “The [highest] court previously ruled that he could form the new government, but the justices did not render a judgment about Netanyahu’s ability to act as vice premier. If the court were to rule against him, he could potentially [find a way to break his deal with Gantz and] take the country to new elections.”

Experts who spoke to The Media Line highlighted another potential route that the prime minister might take.

In just over a year, President Reuven Rivlin’s seven-year term will end, and Netanyahu is reportedly eyeing that office. If he were to win a parliamentary vote to serve as Israel’s next president, he would automatically receive immunity from prosecution. His trial would therefore be suspended and it is unlikely that it would be resumed so far down the road.

Dr. Amir Fuchs, head of the Defending Democratic Values Program at the Israel Democracy Institute, told The Media Line that the maximum possible sentence for breach of trust is three years, and a decade for bribery.

“This is theoretical, though,” he emphasized, “as the penalties for these crimes are generally much shorter, and in rare cases, defendants serve no jail time.”

Fuchs thus postulated that were it to come to that point, Netanyahu would be sentenced to no longer than a year in prison. He cited the likelihood of the court considering the premier’s overall contributions to the country and that he was never previously convicted of a crime.

Yet it will be a while until the trial reaches that point.

“Even if the judges are efficient, overseeing three or four sessions a week, then the trial will still probably take about one year. Thereafter, the appeals process could last anywhere from 12 to 24 months,” he predicted.

“Currently, Netanyahu seems to think that he can beat the charges,” he continued, “but if a conviction becomes likely, it is probable that there will be a plea agreement beforehand.”

Indeed, Netanyahu and his allies have repeatedly accused the state’s legal apparatus, police force and various media outlets of colluding to conduct a witch hunt against him.

The issue has bitterly divided the nation almost exclusively along political lines, which was made stark on Sunday as Netanyahu supporters staged a protest outside the court while the prime minister’s opponents held an adjacent demonstration.

The standoff has over the past month become even more heated, requiring prosecutor Ben-Ari and Attorney-General Avichai Mandelblit – the central focus of the latest attacks by the Right on the legal system – to be provided with state-funded security details.

A police investigation was recently opened after Mandelblit received death threats.

Meanwhile, opposition leader Yair Lapid – who ran on a combined electoral slate with Gantz in three consecutive elections over the past 18 months before his former partner defected to join the new coalition – accused the prime minister of fueling hatred.

“Netanyahu’s incitement and that of his people against the justice system is false, dangerous, violent and has crossed every line…,” Lapid wrote Sunday on Twitter.   “[He is] lead[ing] us to a civil war to be saved from trial.”

To paraphrase the famous adage, then, all appears to be fair in the intensifying struggle between those who believe that Netanyahu has been wrongly persecuted, and those fighting to see Israel’s longest serving leader behind bars.

This, seemingly without much concern for the potentially devastating effects on the nation’s political, judicial and social fabrics.

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