Netanyahu Alleges Overthrow Attempt at Start of Graft Trial
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu took on a new role on Sunday: Defendant in a corruption trial that threatens to end his long political career and leave his legacy in tatters.
Just a week after being installed for a fifth term, Israel’s longest-serving leader appeared at Jerusalem District Court for the reading of the charges against him on the trial’s opening day. In a defiant speech at the courthouse, he rejected the allegations against him in three corruption cases, and accused opponents of trying to topple him.
Israelis have grown accustomed to seeing their politicians hauled into court — former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was jailed for bribery and ex-President Moshe Katsav served time for rape. But Netanyahu has the distinction of being the country’s first sitting leader to be tried for a crime.
For years, as he faced first accusations of wrongdoing and then a formal indictment, Netanyahu’s mantra has been, “there will be nothing, because there isn’t anything.” After entering the courthouse, he revived longstanding allegations that leftist journalists, together with police and prosecutors, are trying to hound him out of office, having failed to do so at the ballot box.
“They have colluded to frame me in baseless and delusional cases, with the goal of overthrowing a strong, right-wing prime minister,” he said in a 15-minute statement before entering the courtroom. Cameras caught the image of him standing inside the courtroom where case 67104-01-20 will be heard, and he only sat down in the dock after journalists were shooed out at the start of the proceeding, Israeli TV reported.
The suspicions against Netanyahu underpinned the political paralysis that had gripped Israel for nearly a year and a half, because staying in power his leading strategy for improving his prospects in court, analysts have said. His trial begins as the country tries to recover from that gridlock and the impact of the coronavirus, which has sent unemployment soaring and threatens a recession.
While the 70-year-old prime minister says the proceedings won’t distract him from the business of governing, they are getting under way as he will be called upon to make decisions of grave consequence, including how to get the battered economy humming again and whether to proceed with his controversial vow to annex some land the Palestinians want for a state.
“This is creating significant challenges for the way the system actually operates, because up until now, the norm has been that when a senior state official is facing serious charges, then he either resigns or is being forced to resign or is voted out of office, and then is left to deal post-service with the criminal law fallout,” said Yuval Shany, vice president of research at the Israel Democracy Institute research center.
“And here we’ve had this exceptional situation where Netanyahu has refused to resign and where the electorate and the political system has come to terms, more or less, with the idea that he will have the trial while serving in office,” Shany said.
Earlier this month, the country’s High Court of Justice ruled that the charges against Netanyahu were no impediment to his continued rule. His trial began just hours after he convened his new cabinet for the first time. Ministers from his Likud party showed up at the courtroom in solidarity, wearing masks in deference to coronavirus social distancing guidelines.
The allegations against him have polarized the nation, and hours before he arrived at the courthouse, hundreds of loyalists gathered outside armed with megaphones, placards and blue-and-white Israeli flags. “Shame, shame, shame,” chanted the pro-Netanyahu protesters, who say he shouldn’t have been brought to trial at all. “Netanyahu, the nation is with you,” read one of their signs.
Opponents congregated outside the prime minister’s residence in Jerusalem, some blowing horns. “Crime Minister” read a long banner with Netanyahu’s picture.
Dozens of local and foreign journalists were installed in two rooms at the court to watch the proceedings on closed-circuit TV. Netanyahu’s long tenure — he’s been in office a combined 14 years — and his high international profile have created great global interest in his trial. Media were not allowed in the courtroom.
Security predictably was tight, with pairs of police officers stationed along the road to the courthouse. At least one sniper was stationed on the roof of an adjacent building.
Netanyahu and others inside the courtroom, including the three judges, wore masks. Transparent partitions separated the justices from each other and the rest of those present.
While Netanyahu claims he’s the victim of a political witchhunt, the indictment on bribery, fraud and breach of trust charges presented in November paints a different picture, one of a man of expensive tastes who abused his position to illicitly accept — and at times demand — fine wines and cigars from billionaire friends.
As he sought to hold on to power, he sacrificed the integrity of his office to win favorable media coverage, prosecutors also charged. He’s accused of redefining Israel’s regulatory landscape to benefit one media publisher, and weighing proposed legislation that would have favored another.
The criminal investigations against him began in late 2016. Prosecutors have secured state witnesses who worked closely with Netanyahu, and the witness list includes more than 300 names.
Netanyahu had asked to sit out the opening day, when he won’t be testifying, arguing that his security detail would compromise Health Ministry guidelines on coronavirus-related social distancing, but the court denied his request. The start of his trial had already been delayed for two months on virus-related grounds, after his handpicked previous justice minister put the courts on an emergency footing, citing the health crisis. The proceedings could spool out for years.
Netanyahu’s defense team asked for two to three months to go over what they said was a mountain of evidence, including thousands of text messages, documents, audio recordings and new evidence they recently received. The hearing ended after about an hour, with the judges afterward scheduling a July 19 session with lawyers from both sides of the case.
In the runup, Netanyahu’s allies launched a campaign to try to discredit the man who indicted him, Attorney General Avihai Mandelblit, who last week filed a complaint with police over threats he’s received. The Jerusalem Post reported that he presented police with screenshots from his phone showing messages such as, “Die, you and your children, we will get to you during a protest.”
The Ynet news website reported on Sunday that security has been assigned to the prosecutor in the case. Mandelblit has had bodyguards for years because of the incitement against him.
Netanyahu’s legal entanglements spilled over into the political arena as he tried — ultimately successfully — to cling to power. Israel’s government was hamstrung for more than a year as he shepherded voters through three inconclusive elections in which the graft suspicions against him loomed large.
In the end, it was the threat of a fourth round of voting and the ravages of the coronavirus that offered Netanyahu a lifeline.
At the cost of tearing apart his party, formed expressly to unseat Netanyahu, former military chief Benny Gantz dropped his objection to governing with the indicted premier, saying changed circumstances required a team effort. They’re to alternate as prime minister, with Netanyahu going first.
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