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Explainer: What's at stake for Israel's Netanyahu as corruption trial resumes

By Maayan Lubell

Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s corruption trial resumes on Monday (local time), when Israel’s longest-serving leader will have to enter his plea to charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu Photo: AFP

Involving secret recordings, media moguls, gifts of cigars and champagne and aides’ betrayals, the three corruption cases have all the makings of a political thriller.

Will it bring him down?

Netanyahu has managed to stay in office throughout the investigations and three election campaigns – with a fourth election due on 23 March.

He denies wrongdoing and a trial is likely to take years.

He will fight to remain prime minister in March and possibly for years afterwards.

If he wins, he could try to secure parliamentary immunity, or pass laws to exempt a serving prime minister from standing trial.

How has he remained in office?

Under Israeli law, a prime minister is under no obligation to stand down unless convicted. No other government minister is protected in this way, so there are legal and political reasons why Netanyahu wants to stay at the top.

People gather to protest against Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for his failure to combat the Covid-19 pandemic and his corruption charges cases and demanding his resignation

People gather to protest against Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for his failure to combat the Covid-19 pandemic and his corruption charges cases and demanding his resignation Photo: Anadolu Agency via AFP

Do Israelis care?

Yes. The corruption case has had a polarising impact on Israelis. Thousands of demonstrators gather weekly outside his official residence and across Israel under the banner of “Crime Minister”, demanding he quit.

But his right-wing voter base has stayed loyal. Supporters see the man they call King Bibi as strong on security and an influential voice for Israel abroad.

What are the charges?

CASE 4000 alleges Netanyahu granted regulatory favours worth around 1.8 billion shekels (approx $NZ695 million) to telecommunications company Bezeq Telecom Israel.

In return, prosecutors say, he sought positive coverage of himself and wife Sara on a news website controlled by the company’s former chairman, Shaul Elovitch.

In this case, Netanyahu has been charged with bribery, fraud and breach of trust. Elovitch and his wife, Iris, have been charged with bribery and obstruction of justice. The couple deny wrongdoing.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (left) and his coalition partner Defence Minister Benny Gantz.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (left) and his coalition partner Defence Minister Benny Gantz. Photo: Ariel Schalit / Pool / AFP

CASE 1000, in which Netanyahu has been charged with fraud and breach of trust, centres on allegations that he and his wife wrongfully received almost 700,000 shekels worth of gifts from Arnon Milchan, a Hollywood producer and Israeli citizen, and Australian billionaire businessman James Packer.

Prosecutors said gifts included champagne and cigars and that Netanyahu helped Milchan with his business interests. Packer and Milchan face no charges.

CASE 2000 alleges Netanyahu negotiated a deal with Arnon Mozes, owner of Israeli newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth, for better coverage and that, in return, he offered legislation that would slow the growth of a rival newspaper. Netanyahu has been charged with fraud and breach of trust. Mozes has been charged with offering a bribe, and denies wrongdoing.

What does Netanyahu say?

Netanyahu says he is the victim of a politically orchestrated “witch hunt” by the left and media to oust him from office, and that receiving gifts from friends is not against the law.

Could he go to jail?

Bribery charges carry a jail sentence of up to 10 years and or a fine. Fraud and breach of trust carry a sentence of up to three years.

Will a verdict come soon?

Unlikely. The trial could take years. But proceedings could be cut short if Netanyahu seeks a plea deal.

Reuters

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