Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will finally stand trial for suspected bribery, fraud and breach of trust in a Jerusalem courtroom on May 24.
The opening of the premier’s trial follows years of investigations, deliberations and legal proceedings that eventually took place during the course of three election campaigns, capped by a last-minute delay due to the coronavirus crisis. Here is everything you need to know about the case:
How did we get here? The long road to Netanyahu’s trial
In February 2019, during the run-up to the first of three national elections in the space of a year, Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit announced his intent to indict Netanyahu for alleged crimes committed while serving as prime minister. His decision followed the recommendation of two police reports issued in 2018, which stated sufficient evidence existed to indict the premier in three affairs known as Case 1000, Case 2000 and Case 4000 – cases that were under investigation for more than three years.
But the actual indictments were a long time coming. First, Netanyahu’s pre-indictment hearings were postponed because of two elections – first in April 2019 and then, after Netanyahu and Kahol Lavan head Benny Gantz both failed to form a governing coalition, again in September.
In October, following the second election, the hearings were held. Over four days, Mendelblit considered – and ultimately rejected – the arguments of Netanyahu’s lawyers, who did their best to dissuade prosecutors from charging him.
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The following month, on November 21, Netanyahu was formally charged, making him the first sitting Israeli prime minister to be criminally indicted.
The legal process, however, was delayed once again as Netanyahu deliberated over whether to formally seek immunity from prosecution from the Knesset in order to avoid going to trial.
Netanyahu initially decided to petition for immunity, making his request on January 1. Less than a month later, however, the request was withdrawn. It had become clear that the Knesset committee set to consider the matter already had a majority to rule against him, thus rendering Netanyahu’s odds at gaining immunity virtually impossible.
By that time, he was already in the throes of a third election campaign after – again – neither he nor Gantz was able to form a ruling coalition.
The decision to withdraw his immunity request was also an attempt to mitigate damage to Likud’s election campaign, since deliberations would have provided hours of footage of Netanyahu’s lawyers debating the nature of the evidence collected against him with prosecutors.
With immunity forfeited, on January 28 Mendelblit filed the indictment in the three corruption cases in the Jerusalem District Court.
This officially set the wheels in motion for a historic trial. It was scheduled to begin in the Jerusalem District Court on March 15 – less than two weeks after the third election was held on March 2 – and just as the coronavirus outbreak began to threaten the health of the Israeli public.
A March 10 request by Netanyahu’s defense attorneys to delay the trial by 45 days, on the grounds that they did not receive the full investigation materials, was rejected by the court.
But because of the coronavirus, Netanyahu got his wished-for temporary reprieve five days later.
Then-Justice Minister Amir Ohana announced that emergency measures would be put in place to counter the spread of the coronavirus, freezing all nonurgent court business – even though the country’s Health Ministry had not recommended that the courts stop their activities, calling them “essential institutions.”
Ohana, a close ally of Netanyahu, expanded his powers to freeze court activity if coronavirus cases escalated in Israel. Rules had hitherto only allowed a justice minister to freeze the courts’ activities for security reasons. But by signing a new regulation, Ohana gave himself the power to do so on public health grounds.
He maintained, however, that the court’s decision to postpone Netanyahu’s trial until May 24 was made solely by the judges on the panel set to hear the trial, “without any involvement” by politicians.
Once the coronavirus crisis began to abate in late April, it was announced that the country’s courts would be expected to resume most of their operations the following month. This allowed planning to move ahead with the Netanyahu trial as scheduled – just 10 days after his new government with Benny Gantz was set to be sworn in on May 14.
While figuratively, all eyes in Israel will be on Netanyahu’s trial when it opens, the event will not be broadcast or streamed live, the Jerusalem District Court announced ahead of the event.
The courtroom capacity will be limited due to coronavirus regulations. Each defendant – Netanyahu, Arnon Mozes, and Shaul and Iris Elovitch – will be permitted to have one lawyer in the courtroom. The other members of the legal teams – for both defense and prosecution – along with the media, will watch in adjacent rooms, broadcast on closed-circuit television. Those inside the courtrooms will be required to wear masks and maintain social distancing.
What are the crimes for which Netanyahu and the other defendants are standing trial?
Case 1000 (fraud and breach of trust)
In Case 1000, Netanyahu is accused of fraud and breach of trust over gifts he allegedly received from Hollywood mogul Arnon Milchan and billionaire James Packer. According to the indictment, Netanyahu received cigars and champagne from the two over the course of several years.
Netanyahu’s family members, the indictment states, also demanded and received gifts from the businessmen, and Netanyahu was aware of this fact.
Mendelblit writes in the indictment that Netanyahu put himself in a conflict of interest and used his public role to receive gifts.
Together, according to police investigations, Milchan and Packer’s gifts to the Netanyahus – including the prime minister’s wife, Sara – are estimated to have amounted to over 1 million shekels (about $280,000). This sum is based on testimony from the gift givers and their employees, as well as receipts and other documents.
Netanyahu has not denied that such gifts were given. He freely admits accepting expensive cigars and pink champagne from Milchan as tokens of friendship, along with other gifts like an expensive piece of jewelry requested by Sara Netanyahu as a birthday gift (from Milchan) and free airplane flights and five-star hotel rooms for the Netanyahus’ eldest son, Yair, from Packer.
Netanyahu’s defense has been that “it is allowed to receive gifts from friends.” According to Netanyahu’s attorneys, Milchan gave him the gifts because the two are friends, and Netanyahu was not aware of the requests made by his family members.
The police, in their indictment recommendation, maintained that Milchan was directly rewarded for his generosity and recommended that Netanyahu also be charged with bribery, saying that “the relationship between the prime minister and Mr. Milchan was one of criminal bribery, and not an innocent relationship between friends.”
Mendelblit, however, chose not to indict Netanyahu – or Milchan or Packer – on the charge of bribery.
Case 2000 (fraud and breach of trust)
This case centers around Netanyahu’s alleged desire to receive better coverage in one of the country’s leading dailies, Yedioth Ahronoth — a desire strong enough for him to allegedly strike a deal with the paper’s publisher, Arnon Mozes.
According to the indictment, at a series of meetings between Netanyahu and Mozes, the two men allegedly discussed a bribery deal calling for Netanyahu to try to limit the circulation of rival newspaper Israel Hayom – which is owned by his longtime political patron, Sheldon Adelson. In exchange, Mozes would give Netanyahu favorable coverage.
Netanyahu was indicted for fraud and breach of trust. Mozes, meanwhile, has been charged with bribery and will also stand trial.
“The accused Mozes offered and promised the defendant Netanyahu a present in the form of visibly altering how he was covered on Yedioth Ahronoth and on [its website], Ynet,” reads Mendelblit’s indictment, “and [promised to] negatively change how his political opponents were covered, in a manner that would ensure that he be re-elected.
“This was carried out while [Netanyahu] was using his power as prime minister to advance legislation that had significant financial repercussions for Mozes,” the indictment continued.
Netanyahu was caught on tape telling Mozes he would convince Israel Hayom to limit its circulation. This would have been a boon to Mozes and Yedioth, weakening their prime source of competition and its ad revenues. In exchange, the police said, Netanyahu asked Mozes to cover his government less critically and stop attacking him personally.
Netanyahu’s lawyers have argued that the premier’s actions were meant to fool Mozes, and that he cannot be accused of an offense since there are no indications he planned to bring the deal to fruition. They have also said that “give and take” between media figures and politicians is commonplace and should not be criminalized.
Case 4000 (bribery, fraud and breach of trust)
Case 4000 alleges that Netanyahu made decisions benefiting media mogul Shaul Elovitch — the controlling shareholder of Bezeq, Israel’s largest telecommunications company – in exchange for positive coverage on Walla News, a website owned by Elovitch. It is considered the most serious of the three cases.
Netanyahu and Elovitch allegedly engaged in a quid pro pro in which Netanyahu – who was serving as communications minister at the time of the alleged deal – led regulatory steps directly tied to Elovitch’s businesses and interests that yielded the tycoon some $500 million.
In return, according to the indictment, Netanyahu and his wife Sara made consistent requests to alter the coverage on the Walla News website in order to serve the Netanyahus’ interests and target their opponents. Elovitch allegedly pressed the site’s editors to comply with the Netanyahus’ demands.
Netanyahu’s attorneys argued that favorable coverage does not constitute a bribe and that, in any case, the prime minister didn’t try to skew the coverage in his favor, but rather pushed for balanced coverage out of ideology.
In addition, they rejected the charge that Netanyahu concealed the relationship from other officials, claiming all decisions made by Netanyahu in his role as communications minister were approved by the ministry’s professional staff.
“Netanyahu and Elovitch created a give-and-take relationship, based on their mutual understanding that each of them had a significant interest that the other could advance,” the indictment states. “As part of that give-and-take relationship, Elovitch and his wife agreed to all of defendant Netanyahu’s demands, and did everything in their power to comply with those demands,” the indictment reads. “Media coverage was of great importance to defendant Netanyahu, and for his family members as well, and he considered it highly important in its effect on his political future.”
The original police recommendation also sought charges of bribery, fraud, breach of trust and obstruction of justice against Sara Netanyahu, but Mendelblit chose not to indict her.
Shaul and Iris Elovitch, however, were both indicted for bribery, obstruction of justice, obstruction of an investigation, money laundering and securities violations, and will also stand trial on May 24.
What if Netanyahu is found guilty?
In Israel, bribery charges carry a sentence of up to 10 years in jail and/or a fine. Fraud and breach of trust, meanwhile, carry a jail sentence of up to three years.
But don’t expect a speedy verdict, as the trial and subsequent legal proceedings are expected to be even more protracted than the journey to get to court. It is worth remembering that Israel’s previous prime minister, Ehud Olmert, was also indicted on three counts of corruption. And although his trial began in September 2009, he only began his prison sentence in February 2016.