For the first time in Israel’s history, a sitting leader is set to go on trial. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has spent the last 11 years in the most powerful office of Israel’s government, has been charged with fraud, breach of trust and bribery. Netanyahu is not the first high-level Israeli official to be accused of corruption, but in previous cases, the accused stepped down from their position to fight the charges against them. This was the case when Israel’s last prime minister, Ehud Olmert, was ultimately found guilty of accepting bribes and spent sixteen months in prison. However, since this course of action is precedent and not law, Netanyahu has refused to resign. He denies any wrongdoing and has stated that the charges are a result of a left-wing witch hunt against him, the country’s most influential right-wing leader. If Netanyahu were to be convicted of all charges, he would face up to 16 years in prison.
Of the charges against Netanyahu, the most serious is bribery. The prosecution accuses Netanyahu of obtaining control of the coverage of Walla! News, Israel’s second-largest news website, in exchange for hundreds of millions of dollars worth of regulatory favors that assisted the site and its executives. It is alleged that Netanyahu used this control to make hundreds of edits to the website’s content, strategically place stories and photos, prevent negative coverage of him and his party and influence the hiring of reporters and editors for the site. The timeframe of this control includes Netanyahu’s 2013 and 2015 reelection campaigns.
Netanyahu has undergone three elections in the last year. None of the three were able to choose a new prime minister outright, as Netanyahu faced heavy competition from centrist candidate Benny Gantz. After the third election, Gantz was thought to have enough support in the Israeli Parliament to pass legislation preventing Netanyahu from remaining prime minister during his trial. Instead, Gantz shockingly opted to forgo legislation and formed a power-sharing government with Netanyahu, citing concerns that a fourth election would be disastrous for the nation’s structure and an unnecessary expense during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. Netanyahu was sworn into office for his fifth consecutive term in early May.
On May 24, Netanyahu appeared in the Jerusalem District Court for an hour-long initial hearing. He had filed a motion to send representatives instead of appearing personally because his bodyguards would exceed the limited number of people allowed in one room due to the coronavirus pandemic, but this motion was denied by the judge. Netanyahu was, however, excused from appearing in person at the following hearing, set for July 19. Supporters of Netanyahu and his party, Likud, gathered around the courthouse, chanting “Bibi, King of Israel,” Netanyahu’s nickname, and waving Israeli flags. Detractors gathered at Netanyahu’s home in central Jerusalem, bearing a banner and wearing masks emblazoned with “Crime Minister.”
Israeli analysts believe that the trial’s first witnesses may not even be called until a year from now and that the verdict may not be handed down for multiple years. The key witnesses include three of Netanyahu’s former aides who agreed to testify against Netanyahu in exchange for avoiding prosecution themselves. Their testimony is likely to shape the nature of the trial and ultimately its length and results. For now, Israel is left to organize its government under a leader who may someday find himself leaving the country’s highest office in handcuffs.