Israeli PM, Netanyahu’s corruption trial to hear first witnesses

Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu’s corruption trial is to resume, with the court in Jerusalem overseeing it due to hear evidence for the first time.

Mr Netanyahu, 71, is accused of bribery, fraud and breach of trust in connection with three separate cases.

He formally pleaded not guilty to the charges at a hearing in February.

His trial has been delayed several times because of coronavirus-related restrictions and last month’s general election, in which it was a key issue.

The election failed to end the deadlock that has plagued Israeli politics for the last two years, with Mr Netanyahu’s right-wing bloc and the parties opposed to him both currently short of a majority in parliament.

President Reuven Rivlin will consult party leaders this week, then nominate who he thinks has the best chance of forming a new coalition government.

Mr Netanyahu’s rivals fear that if he remains PM he will push through legislation that would grant him immunity from prosecution while in office. He rejects such a claim.

What is Benjamin Netanyahu accused of?

He has been indicted in three cases, known as 1,000, 2,000 and 4,000:

  • Case 1,000 – Fraud and breach of trust: he is accused of receiving gifts – mainly cigars and bottles of champagne – from powerful businessmen in exchange for favours
  • Case 2,000 – Fraud and breach of trust: Mr Netanyahu is accused of offering to help improve the circulation of Israeli newspaper Yediot Ahronot in exchange for positive coverage
  • Case 4,000 – Bribery, fraud and breach of trust: As PM and minister of communications at the time of the alleged offence, Mr Netanyahu is accused of promoting regulatory decisions favourable to the controlling shareholder in the Bezeq telecom giant, Shaul Elovitch, in exchange for positive coverage by Mr Elovitch’s Walla news site

Mr Netanyahu has denied all the charges against him, branding them a “witch-hunt” by his political opponents, and has vowed to clear his name.

What will happen at the hearings?

The evidentiary stage of the trial will see witnesses testifying before the three-judge panel, including a number of former aides to Mr Netanyahu, for three days every week.

The prosecution is expected to start by calling the witnesses for Case 4,000, which is considered the most serious because it involves the bribery charge.

The Jerusalem Post reported that the first witness would be former Walla CEO Ilan Yeshua.

The news site’s chief executive editor, Aviram Elad, former news director Michal Klein and former head of the news desk Amit Eshel are set to testify next, followed by former communications ministry director-general Avi Berger.

In February, the judges agreed to a request by Mr Netanyahu for the evidentiary stage to be delayed until after the election. He warned that failing to do so would represent a “crude intervention” in the poll.

Mr Netanyahu also insisted the cases against him were “not even completed fabrications”, adding that “lots of things are missing, even from the prosecution’s point of view”.

How can the PM serve and stand trial?

He is presumed innocent unless proven otherwise, and there is currently no legal barrier to him staying in office as prime minister.

And even if convicted, Mr Netanyahu would not be required to step down until the appeals process is exhausted – something that could take years.

A former prime minister, Ehud Olmert, stepped down as his party’s leader when he was under investigation for corruption in 2008 but technically remained in office until elections the following year – polls which brought Benjamin Netanyahu to power.

Mr Olmert was eventually convicted of bribery, fraud, obstruction of justice and breach of trust in connection with several cases. He served 16 months of a 27-month prison sentence.


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