בנימין נתניהו
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during a Likud rally
Photo: TPS
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during a Likud rally

Courtroom 317: Netanyahu's 'unprecedented' corruption trial to open

After 500 days of political deadlock, Netanyahu is set begin a new battle in the Jerusalem District Court at 2pm; mass demo set to take place outside courtroom; he faces charges of fraud, bribery and breach of trust

AFP, Ynet |
Published: 05.24.20 , 08:54
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu set to arrive on Sunday in courtroom 317 to face criminal charges on a string of corruption allegations he denies, becoming the first premier in Israel's history to stand trial while in office.
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  • At 11am the prime minister will be holding the first cabinet meeting of the new government, while at 2pm he will head to the courtroom for the opening hearing. A mass pro-Netanyahu demonstration is set to take place outside the Jerusalem District Court.
    After more than 500 days of electoral deadlock in which he fought for his political survival Netanyahu is to begin a new battle - to stay out of prison and avoid a stain on his legacy.
    בנימין נתניהובנימין נתניהו
    Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during a Likud rally
    (Photo: TPS)
    The 70-year-old is used to setting precedents: he is the first Israeli prime minister born after the foundation of the state in 1948 and the longest-serving in its history.
    But the impending trial is a deeply-unwanted first.
    In 2009, prime minister Ehud Olmert stepped down after police recommended he be indicted for graft.
    He was later tried and convicted of taking bribes and sentenced to 27 months in prison, but was paroled after less than a year and a half.
    Former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert Former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert
    Former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert
    (Photo: AP)
    Like Netanyahu, Olmert came from the right-wing Likud party, although he subsequently defected to the centrist Kadima.
    Netanyahu is fighting tooth and nail to avoid Olmert's fate.
    Among the charges he faces is that he sought to illegally trade favors with Yedioth Aharonoth publisher Arnon Mozes, who also will stand trial for his part, in exchange for positive coverage for himself.
    He is also accused of accepting cigars, champagne and jewelry worth NIS 700,000 ($198,000) from wealthy personalities, Israeli-American billionaire film producer Arnon Milchan and Australian businessman James Packer, in exchange for favors.
    Arnon Milchan and Prime Minister Netanyahu Arnon Milchan and Prime Minister Netanyahu
    Arnon Milchan and Prime Minister Netanyahu
    (Photo: gettyimages)
    Perhaps most serious of all is the claim that Netanyahu offered media mogul Shaul Elovitch regulatory changes worth millions of dollars to his telecom giant Bezeq in exchange for favorable reporting on the Walla! news website.
    That charge is also the most complex, said Amir Fuchs, a researcher at the Israel Democracy Institute, who says it differs from "classic" bribery cases where money changes hands.

    'Political death warrant'

    In this case, Fuchs argued, the allegation is that Netanyahu "is getting only media coverage," rather than cash.
    "It is unprecedented," he told reporters.
    But in the Bezeq case, Fuchs adds, Netanyahu is accused of doing far more than seek flattering write-ups.
    Media mogul Shaul Elovitch Media mogul Shaul Elovitch
    Media mogul Shaul Elovitch
    (Photo: Reuters)
    "It was actually complete editorial control of this site even on the specifics of which posts to make, or which pictures to make."
    Netanyahu denies all the accusations and claims he is the victim of a witch hunt by the media and legal officials.
    After months of suspense and repeated police questioning of Netanyahu, Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit in January filed charges against the premier.
    Many commentators considered this the premier's political death warrant.
    בני גנץ בנימין נתניהובני גנץ בנימין נתניהו
    Defense Minister Benny Gantz and Prime Minister Netanyahu during the inauguration of Israel's 35th government
    (Photo: Knesset Spokesperson)
    But Netanyahu retained the Likud leadership and after three inconclusive general elections managed to hammer out a power-sharing deal with his rival-turned-ally, Blue & White chairman Benny Gantz.
    Under the agreement, Netanyahu will continue to lead the government for 18 months before handing over the premiership to Gantz.

    'Conflict of interest'

    Netanyahu's trial had been due to open in mid-March, but the COVID-19 pandemic lead to a postponement to May 24, and the proceedings will be marked by social-distancing and other hygiene measures.
    Netanyahu's lawyers requested that he be excused from appearing in person on Sunday afternoon at the opening of a trial that will stretch over months or even years with possible appeals.
    בית משפט מחוזי בירושליםבית משפט מחוזי בירושלים
    Hall 317 at Jerusalem's District Court, where Netanyahu's trial will take place
    (Photo: Shalev Shalom)
    They argued that his attendance, to hear the formal reading of the charges against him and confirm that he has read and understands them, was merely technical.
    But the court rejected the request, citing a clause in the criminal code stating that "a person may not be tried on criminal charges except in his presence."
    Under Israeli law, a sitting prime minister does not have automatic immunity from prosecution but also is not obliged to resign when charged, only when convicted and after all avenues of appeal have been exhausted.
     בג"ץ דן בהסכם הקואליציוני שנחתם בין הליכוד לכחול לבן בג"ץ דן בהסכם הקואליציוני שנחתם בין הליכוד לכחול לבן
    The 11-justices panel that debated the legality of the coalition deal between Gantz and Netanyahu
    (Photo: EPA)
    Yuval Shany, professor of law at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, argues that there is "a basic incompatibility" between Netanyahu's role as head of the government and his status as a criminal defendant.
    In the latter role, Shany says, the premier will be "fighting very aggressively and maybe effectively to weaken the government authorities that are prosecuting him".
    "There is a very serious conflict of interest situation," he said.
    Once the trial is underway, the three judges selected by the High Court will be able to demand Netanyahu's presence in court when they consider it necessary.
    At any time before the verdict, the law allows Netanyahu to change his plea in exchange for lesser or fewer charges.
    Such plea bargains are common in Israeli courts.

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