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4 Things to Know About Netanyahu’s Corruption Trial
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4 Things to Know About Netanyahu’s Corruption Trial

Finally, it begins. And the star will not be much in evidence.

Benjamin Netanyahu, seen on Nov. 12, 2019, is the first sitting Israeli prime minister to be indicted. Miriam Alster/Flash90
Benjamin Netanyahu, seen on Nov. 12, 2019, is the first sitting Israeli prime minister to be indicted. Miriam Alster/Flash90

JTA  Jerusalem — After more than three years of investigation, charges in three cases and three national elections, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu entered a Jerusalem courtroom Sunday for the start of his corruption trial.

Netanyahu was indicted more than a year ago on three charges that you can read more about here. Two have to do with allegations that he bought himself positive press, and the third alleges that he received illegal gifts from a rich donor. He has denied them all and called the investigations against him a “witch hunt.”

Netanyahu’s trial, which will not be televised, was delayed by two months after emergency measures put in place to battle the coronavirus pandemic effectively shut Israeli courthouses. Now with Israel’s infrastructure creaking back to life, the district court here is open for business again.

During that time, Netanyahu narrowly managed to hold onto power — meaning that on Sunday he became Israel’s first sitting prime minister to go on trial. (Every other prime minister for the past two decades have been investigated; Ehud Olmert, who ultimately went to jail for corruption, resigned prior to his indictment.)

Here are five things to know as the trial gets underway.

1. Netanyahu will make only limited appearances in court.

Every day that Netanyahu spends in the courtroom keeps him away from other government business — and deepens the troubling optics of having Israel’s leader sitting at the defendant’s table.

Netanyahu last week asked the three-judge panel hearing his case to excuse him from the first day of the trial, claiming in part that his five bodyguards would violate the Health Ministry guidelines setting limits on the number of people allowed in the courtroom and that the first day is just a “technical” discussion among the attorneys.

The judges responded that he had to be there for the trial’s first day.

“This is the case in every criminal procedure, including the current criminal procedure,” they said.

But the judges likely will not insist that Netanyahu show up for every session after the first one, according to Israel Democracy Institute researcher Amir Fuchs. Still, Fuchs notes, he will need to be briefed and consulted with after every court session.

2. The trial could last at least a year — and a final verdict could take longer.

Olmert’s did, even with the court meeting several times a week. In Netanyahu’s case, it could be several months before court is in session in the trial again since the defense must be given time to review all the materials generated during the investigation. When the court reconvenes, it could hear over 300 witnesses for the prosecution, according to reports.

That means the trial could take up to a year, and with appeals to the Supreme Court, a final verdict could take even longer. Olmert’s appeals after his conviction, for comparison, took more than three years.

Even if the court rules in Netanyahu’s favor, the saga may not be over. In Israel, the prosecution can appeal a court’s acquittal of a defendant, and often does.

3. Netanyahu will probably be able to serve out his term as prime minister.

According to Israeli law, a prime minister who has been convicted of a crime must step down — but only once there is a final verdict. Under the terms of a governance deal that Netanyahu struck this month, he is set to remain prime minister only for 18 months before handing the reins to his coalition partner Benny Gantz on Nov. 17, 2021.

After that date, Netanyahu is set to take on the title of deputy prime minister. That could cause trouble for him, even if a final verdict still has not been reached. That’s because other government ministers and lawmakers do have to resign or take a leave of absence while under indictment.

But a recent lawsuit suggests that things won’t be cut and dry then, either. In response to a lawsuit making the case that Netanyahu should not be allowed to form a government while under indictment, the court ruled that it did not have the legal grounds to interfere with the workings of the Knesset, or the executive branch.

Once Netanyahu steps down as prime minister, the court will likely be asked to force him to resign. Doing so would require undermining the precedent it just set.

4. Netanyahu is not the only person on trial here.

A host of prominent Israelis will parade through the courtroom. Also on trial are Arnon Mozes, publisher of the daily Hebrew-language Yediot Acharonot newspaper, and Shaul and Iris Elovitch, the controlling shareholders of Israel’s Bezeq telecommunications company and also owners of the Walla news website. They are charged with providing Netanyahu with favorable coverage in exchange for political favors.

Also, three former government workers whom Netanyahu hired are expected to testify against him. All have been given immunity from prosecution.

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