Shortly after 9 a.m. Monday, the Israeli prime minister entered the Jerusalem district court for the probationary phase of his corruption trial. Sitting with a mask, crossed arms and tilted head, Netanyahu overheard the opening speech of Deputy Attorney General Liat Ben-Ari, raising charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust on three counts.
“The case before the honorable court today is an important and serious case in the field of government corruption,” Ben-Ari said. “Defendant One is the Prime Minister of Israel who, according to the indictment, misappropriated the great governmental power entrusted to him, inter alia, to seek and extract improper benefits from the owners of the main media in Israel, in order to to advance his personal affairs for a long time “.
Minutes later, less than two miles away, Netanyahu’s Likud party colleagues were at the residence of Israeli President Reuven Rivlin, trying to persuade him to give Netanyahu the mandate to form a government – despite not having a clear way forward to build a fairly large coalition after last month’s election.
Although Netanyahu’s party won the largest number of seats in the Israeli parliament, known as the Knesset, neither he nor his opponents have been able to prove so far that they have the numbers needed to unite enough parties to reached most of the 61 countries needed.
Netanyahu faces charges in three separate cases.
The first witness called Monday was former Walla CEO Ilan Yeshua. Yeshua testified that he was regularly told by Elovitch and his wife Iris, as well as by some of Netanyahu’s advisers, to get the editors to change articles or remove content about Netanyahu and his family, and to post content that would painted Netanyahu in a positive light – – and I do the opposite for Netanyahu’s political opponents.
Netanyahu did not speak during Monday’s proceedings, but has previously denied all allegations, describing them as a media-sponsored witch-hunt against him. He insists he wants the issue to move in its course, confident it will collapse.
In a televised statement that was also posted on his Facebook page Monday afternoon, Netanyahu called the trial a “fixed game” and even went so far as to call the trial a coup attempt.
“This is what looks like a government coup attempt,” Netanyahu said. “This is an attempt to overthrow a strong right-wing prime minister.”
Hundreds of witnesses are expected to be summoned to court, which will take place on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday each week until further notice. And, unless given special permission, Netanyahu may need to attend the entire trial (on Monday, he was allowed to leave following the prosecutor’s opening remarks).
The events in court and the coalition negotiations are closely linked. If Netanyahu’s Likud party colleagues succeed in the president’s residence, it could help with his potential success in court, says Yohanan Plessner, head of the Israel Institute for Democracy.
“For the last two years, the legal clock and the political clock have been completely intertwined. Nothing that happens in Israeli politics can be truly understood without understanding the chronology of Netanyahu’s trial. Netanyahu’s main motivation is to evade the legal process or try and overcome somehow, “Plessner told CNN.
Plessner said Netanyahu could do so by appointing a new attorney general, or by influencing the appointment of several judges who could influence his trial. Other critics of the Israeli leader say he wants to pass a new immunity law that would protect a sitting Prime Minister from prosecution.
“Netanyahu’s pre-election goal was to reach a solid majority 61 that would allow him to legislate laws that would essentially undermine the independence of the judiciary and allow him to stop, disrupt, undermine the legal process he is facing,” he said. Plessner.
Netanyahu has not shied away from his desire to reform the judiciary.
“Everyone understands that there needs to be a reform. The rule of law is protected when people do not hunt witches, when they do not try to overthrow a strong right-wing prime minister using judicial means,” he told the Jerusalem Post last month. “They can’t beat me in the polls so they use these absurd accusations that will collapse and are collapsing before our eyes.”
As the trial goes on, so does the political drama. If no party is able to form a governing coalition, the country could face an unprecedented fifth election in two years – which could lead to an unprecedented situation where Netanyahu will split his time between the campaign trials. and the courtroom.
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