Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s most popular leader in decades, arrived in court today for the start of his corruption trial, setting the stage for a long battle between the rightwing populist and the country’s besieged legal system.
The 70-year-old took office last Sunday for a record fifth term in a power-sharing deal that followed three rounds of inconclusive elections, each fought as a referendum on Mr Netanyahu’s honesty and eligibility for national office.
Now, Israel’s fractured political landscape must contend with the unprecedented ramifications of a sitting premier making a regular trek between his office in the Knesset to Jerusalem district court, where the trial could drag on for as long as two years.
Indicted in January for bribery, fraud and breach of trust, Mr Netanyahu has dismissed the charges as a politically motivated witch hunt, provoking protests by his most loyal supporters against the police chief, the attorney-general and the entire judicial system.
“The objective is to topple a strong prime minister from the rightist camp and thus to remove the rightwing from leadership for many years,” Mr Netanyahu told reporters outside the courthouse, adding that he was “holding his head high” as the trial began.
Mr Netanyahu’s predecessor, Ehud Olmert, was jailed for bribery, and a former president, Moshe Katsav, was convicted of rape. But both leaders had resigned before their trials began, avoiding a showdown between the executive and the judiciary.
“The idea that you have a sitting prime minister on trial — this, we haven’t seen before,” said Yuval Shany, a professor of law at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. “This creates significant challenges to how the system operates.”
The charges against Mr Netanyahu, nicknamed cases 1,000, 2,000 and 4,000, stem from a series of overlapping investigations into the prime minister and his wife Sara’s relationships with wealthy businessmen and media magnates.
Over the course of 15 months, investigators documented the couple receiving gifts, including hundreds of thousands of dollars in Partagas cigars and pink Dom Pérignon champagne. In return, the couple delivered favours, prosecutor allege.
The indictment alleges that Mr Netanyahu lobbied for Arnon Milchan, the producer of Hollywood blockbusters such as Pretty Woman, to gain a multiyear US visa, sought positive news coverage from a media baron in exchange for denting the circulation of a rival, and promised regulatory benefits to a telecoms provider in return for more positive press.
Mr Netanyahu has dismissed the allegations, saying it was normal for him to help out prominent Israelis such as Mr Milchan, while arguing during election campaigns that the latter two cases did not constitute bribery because no money had been exchanged. Mr Milchan has previously denied that his gifts to Mr Netanyahu were bribes.
The prime minister had hoped to avoid appearing in court after his lawyers argued that his security detail would not be able to comply with social distancing requirements in force to combat coronavirus, but that request was rejected.
The consistent leaks of news from the investigations, and the dramatic turning of some of Mr Netanyahu’s former confidantes into witnesses for the prosecution, has overshadowed Israeli politics for almost three years.
But it is yet to have a significant impact on Mr Netanyahu’s popularity. The unity government he will lead for at least the next 18 months enjoys one of the largest parliamentary majorities in Israeli history.
Amir Fuchs, a professor at Hadassah Academic College in Jerusalem, said the charge of bribery, relating to Mr Netanyahu’s dealings with Shaul Elovitch, one of Israel’s richest men, was the most serious for the prime minister’s legal team but also the hardest for the prosecution to prove.
Prosecutors allege that Mr Elovitch and his telecoms company, Bezeq, received billions of shekels of regulatory advantages in exchange for watering down criticism of Mr Netanyahu and running handpicked headlines and photos on Walla!, one of Israel’s most prominent news outlets. Mr Elovitch has been accused of bribery, and denies the charges.
“It’s not just about positive media coverage — it’s about complete editorial control,” said Mr Fuchs.