Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu’s corruption trial resumed on Monday as his chances of securing another term following last month’s parliamentary elections appear to be dwindling in high-stakes political talks hosted by the country’s president.
An Israeli prosecutor has told a court that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had helped a business couple to clinch deals worth hundred of millions of shekels in exchange for favourable coverage of him on a news website they controlled.
Netanyahu's corruption trial opened on Monday – a day of high political drama in Israel as President Reuven Rivlin held talks with party delegations on who they would recommend he pick to try to form a government after an inconclusive election last month, the country's fourth in two years.
A spokesman for Rivlin said the president would announce his decision on Tuesday. Netanyahu, whose right-wing Likud party came first in the March 23 ballot, won the most endorsements, but was still short of a governing majority in parliament.
Speaking at the trial in Jerusalem District Court, state prosecutor Liat Ben-Ari said: "The relationship between Netanyahu and the [co-] defendants became currency, something that could be traded."
"This currency could distort a public servant's judgment," Ben-Ari said.
He is Israel's longest-serving prime minister and has clung to power through four hard-fought elections in less than two years, even as he has faced allegations of bribery, fraud and breach of trust. The March 23 election was largely a referendum on his leadership but produced no clear verdict.
Evidentiary stage of trial
Neither Netanyahu's allies nor his foes secured a governing majority in the Knesset, Israel's parliament. So his fate could come down to Naftali Bennett, a right-wing former ally with whom he has strained ties, and Mansour Abbas, the leader of a small Arab Islamist party who also has yet to commit to either the pro- or anti-Netanyahu blocs.
Netanyahu is charged with accepting bribes, fraud and breach of trust in three cases. The first involves Netanyahu allegedly receiving gifts worth hundreds of thousands of dollars from wealthy friends, including Hollywood film producer Arnon Milchan and Australian billionaire James Packer.
In the second case, Netanyahu is accused of trying to orchestrate positive coverage in a major Israeli paper in exchange for curbing distribution of a free pro-Netanyahu tabloid.
The third, dubbed Case 4000, which will be the focus of Monday’s first witness testimony, alleges that Netanyahu backed legislation worth hundreds of millions of dollars to the owner of Israeli telecom giant Bezeq in return for positive coverage on its news site Walla.
Netanyahu has denied any wrongdoing, dismissing the charges against him as part of a media and law enforcement “witch hunt” to unseat him. His trial began last year and could last for another two years.
In January, prosecutors alleged 315 instances of Walla being requested to amend its coverage so it was more favorable to Netanyahu and his family. They said 150 of them involved Netanyahu himself.
According to the charges, Shaul Elovitch, CEO of Bezeq, “exerted heavy and continuous pressure” on Ilan Yeshua, the former chief editor of Walla, to change articles on the website to meet the demands of Netanyahu and his family. Yeshua is expected to take the stand on Monday.
Israeli law does not require prime ministers to resign while under indictment, and Netanyahu has refused to do so. That has left the country deeply divided. A emergency unity government formed last year to address the coronavirus crisis was mired in political bickering and fell apart in less than a year over its inability to approve a budget.
Netanyahu passed Israel’s founding father David Ben Gurion in 2019 as the country’s longest-serving prime minister, having held office continuously since 2009 and for several years in the 1990s.