Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appeared in court on Monday at the start of his long-awaited corruption trial while rival parties across town opened negotiations to try again to form a government after another election campaign.
The legal and political processes are intertwined as Israel grapples with the reality of an accused prime minister – and has failed to form a stable government for two years – and yet won by far the most votes in the March 23 elections.
71-year-old Netanyahu sat with his arms crossed as prosecutors made their opening statement against him on charges of fraud, bribery and breach of trust. At the center of their case is the claim that he provided illegal favors to powerful businessmen in exchange for positive media coverage.
“The case before the Honorable Court today is a significant and serious case of corruption in the government,” said Liat Ben-Ari, the lead prosecutor. She accused the prime minister of “using the power of his office to advance his personal desires” and said prosecutors would produce a “tapestry” of evidence.
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Netanyahu denies any wrongdoing and has condemned the charges as a politically motivated “witch hunt” against him. The prime minister sat through the prosecutor’s opening statement but left before testimony began.
Dozens of pro and anti-Netanyahu protesters gathered outside the Jerusalem District Court as the trial began. “I came here to support, support and empower my great leader,” said Meir Azarzar, a Netanyahu supporter.
A heavy police presence surrounded the building as Netanyahu’s bodyguards entered the court with him. The process will take three days a week, and it will likely take weeks for the three-person jury to reach a verdict. There is no jury in the trial.
A few miles away, Israeli President Reuven Rivlin began meetings with representatives of the political parties that had won seats in last month’s elections. The election – Israel’s fourth in two years – ended with no majority for Netanyahu’s right-wing bloc or the opposition coalition determined to oust him.
The president’s role is usually ceremonial. However, since there is no clear result of the elections, Rivlin has to decide who should have the first opportunity to form a government.
Even at the beginning of the trial, Rivlin made a pessimistic remark about the chances of someone cobbling together the majority.
“At the moment I see no way to form a coalition,” he said in publicly broadcast comments. He added: “After four election campaigns, democracy has been exhausted.”
If no one is able to form a coalition, Israel will seek its fifth election since April 2019, continuing an unprecedented period of political chaos in the Jewish state.
The Likud party of Netanyahu emerged from the election with 30 seats, making it by far the largest party. But even with the support of several nationalist and religious parties, Netanyahu still lacks the 61 seats he needs for a majority government.
Likud’s delegation to the president was led by Justice Minister Amir Ohana, who found that over 1 million Israelis voted for Netanyahu despite charges against him. “I think they have expressed a high level of trust in him and a lack of trust in others,” he said.
The second largest party after the Likud is centrist Yesh Atid, who won 17 seats. The party leader, former journalist Yair Lapid, has the support of smaller liberal parties, but has failed to unite the anti-Netanyahu coalition under his leadership.
“If we have a prime minister who is currently defending himself in court, we need a candidate who works for the State of Israel,” said Orna Barbivai, head of the President’s Yesh Atid delegation.
Rivlin is expected to decide on Wednesday whether the mandate will be given to Netanyahu, Lapid, or possibly someone else. Whoever is elected has 28 days to try and form a majority government.
In a surprise twist in the elections, a small Islamist party called the United Arab List won four seats and could maintain the balance of power in the next Israeli parliament. Both the Netanyahu bloc and the opposition have courted the party in hopes of gaining their support.
In the intricate puzzle of Israeli politics, gaining support from one Arab party could alienate other Jewish parties, meaning aspiring leaders could get support from one direction only to lose it in another.