Explainer: Israel's Netanyahu faces legal trial and political tribulations

Maayan Lubell
·3-min read
FILE PHOTO: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gestures as he delivers a speech to supporters following the announcement of exit polls in Israel's general election at his Likud party headquarters in Jerusalem

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By Maayan Lubell

JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's legal and political troubles will play out simultaneously on Monday, at his corruption trial and in the president's residence.

Judges ordered Netanyahu to be in court for the prosecution's opening argument on three cases involving charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust. Meanwhile, President Reuven Rivlin will begin talks over who should lead the next government after a fourth inconclusive election on March 23.

HOW CAN HE BE ON TRIAL AND REMAIN PRIME MINISTER?

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

Netanyahu has pleaded not guilty. He contends he is the victim of a politically orchestrated "witch hunt" by the left and media to oust him, and that receiving gifts from friends is not against the law.

COULD HE GO TO JAIL?

Bribery charges carry a prison sentence of up to 10 years and/or a fine. Fraud and breach of trust are punishable by up to three years in jail

WHAT'S IT ALL ABOUT?

CASE 4000

Prosecutors allege Netanyahu granted regulatory favours worth around 1.8 billion shekels (about $500 million) to Bezeq Telecom Israel.

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

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.

CASE 1000

Netanyahu has been charged with fraud and breach of trust over allegations that he and his wife wrongfully received almost 700,000 shekels ($210,000) worth of gifts from Arnon Milchan, a Hollywood producer and an 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

Netanyahu allegedly negotiated a deal with Arnon Mozes, owner of Israeli newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth, for better coverage in return for legislation to 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.

WILL A VERDICT COME SOON?

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

DO ISRAELIS STILL CARE?

Yes. The corruption case was a polarising issue in recent elections.

Thousands of demonstrators gathered weekly outside his official residence and across Israel under the banner of "Crime Minister", demanding he quit.

But his right-wing voter base sees "King Bibi" as strong on security and an influential voice for Israel abroad.

Meanwhile, Israel is facing unprecedented political paralysis, an economic crisis brought on by the coronavirus, a new U.S. administration hoping to revive nuclear talks with Iran and a looming International Criminal Court war crimes investigation.

($1 = 3.3300 shekels)

(Reporting by Maayan Lubell; Editing by Jeffrey Heller and Gerry Doyle)