Understanding the Charges Clouding Netanyahu’s Future

He’s been called “the magician” for his ability to survive political difficulties, but Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has never faced a test like this one. Netanyahu appeared in court for a second time on Feb. 8 to respond to charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust, just weeks before the public decides whether to let him continue as Israel’s longest-serving prime minister.

1. What are the charges?

Netanyahu, 71, is accused of taking about 1 million shekels ($304,000) worth of items such as cigars and champagne from wealthy friends including Hollywood producer Arnon Milchan and Australian businessman James Packer. In exchange, Attorney General Avihai Mandelblit said, Netanyahu sought to advance Milchan’s interests in fields including telecommunications and tax law, and by helping with his U.S. visa. In a second case, Netanyahu is accused of discussing with the owner of Israel’s Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper a deal to undermine Israel Hayom, a free daily, in exchange for sympathetic coverage. In a third case, which legal experts consider the gravest, Netanyahu is suspected of advancing the business interests of his friend Shaul Elovitch, at the time the controlling shareholder of Bezeq Israeli Telecommunications Corporation Ltd., the country’s largest telecommunications company, in exchange for favorable coverage on a Bezeq-owned news site.

2. What does Netanyahu say?

He has denied all wrongdoing and accused law enforcement of trying to stage a coup against him. Netanyahu has said he’s the victim of a conspiracy of left-wing opponents and media figures who deplore his nationalist agenda and are frustrated by their inability to vote him out of power. According to one interpretation of Israeli law, Netanyahu is allowed to remain in office until he’s exhausted all avenues of appeal. Others argue that there is judicial precedent to force his resignation because the High Court has compelled other politicians to step down after they were indicted on serious charges including bribery. Netanyahu, who began his second stint as prime minister in 2009, has said that he has no intention of resigning. He has proposed moves that would give him immunity from prosecution while in office and limit the courts’ ability to intervene.

3. How unusual is a trial of a prime minister?

Netanyahu’s trial is the first of a sitting prime minister. His predecessor, Ehud Olmert, went to jail on corruption charges after leaving office (and was released in 2017). Other investigations, of former Prime Ministers Ehud Barak, Ariel Sharon and Netanyahu himself during his first term, continued for years without resulting in charges against them.

4. What does the indictment mean politically?

Netanyahu finally reached a power-sharing agreement with rival Benny Gantz after three inconclusive elections, but the government they formed in May collapsed seven months later over a budget tussle. New elections have been scheduled for March 23 in which the prime minister will face both centrist and nationalist rivals. So far polls give neither of Israel’s political blocs an easy path to victory, a situation that could extend two years of political turmoil. Even a minor shift, though, could have important implications given the close race and the fractured state of Israeli politics.

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