Israel’s Netanyahu due in court, for corruption trial

Published : 05 Apr 2021 06:55 PM

Israel’s legal and political dramasconverge Monday, with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu due in court for hiscorruption trial and the president to launch talks to help form a government, reports AFP. 

Judges have ordered Netanyahu appear at the Jerusalem District Court forthe prosecution’s opening arguments in the case where he is charged withbribery, fraud and breach of trust — allegations he denies.

While lead prosecutor Liat Ben-Ari will be laying out the criminal caseagainst Israel’s longest-serving leader, across the city President ReuvenRivlin will hold discussions that could determine Netanyahu’s political fate.

Israel’s March 23 election was its fourth inconclusive vote in less thantwo years, prolonging the worst political crisis in the nation’s history.

Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud party finished first, winning 30 seats in the120-member parliament, but his ability to form a stable governing coalitionis precarious, a reality that has plagued him for several years.

Rivlin on Monday begins two days of consultations with party officials todetermine who has a plausible path towards a 61-seat majority, in aparliament bitterly divided between those who back Netanyahu and thosecommitted to ending his 12-year tenure.

Customarily, Rivlin gives a 28-day window to form a government to the leader with most recommendations from individual lawmakers.

That can be extended 14 days at the president’s discretion.

Netanyahu is expected to get support from his 30 Likud loyalists, 16lawmakers representing Israel’s ultra-Orthodox Jewish parties, and six votesfrom the far-right Religious Zionism alliance.

That makes a likely total of 52, nine short of the absolute majorityneeded.

Because the ideologically divided anti-Netanyahu camp has no agreed leader,Netanyahu may receive the most recommendations.

But in comments that infuriated Likud, Rivlin last week implied that hewould not necessarily be guided by mathematics alone.

He said he would give the mandate to the lawmaker who has a chance to forma government “that will heal the divisions between us and rebuild Israelisociety.”

The president also said that “out-of-the-ordinary coalitions” may berequired to break the political gridlock. Given past public acrimony between Rivlin and Netanyahu, Likud interpretedthose comments as a sign that the president was tacitly aligned with theanti-Netanyahu camp.

Rivlin — a Likud member when he was in parliament — was accused byNetanyahu’s party of overstepping his largely ceremonial mandate.

Within the anti-Netanyahu bloc, the centrist YeshAtid party, led by formertelevision host YairLapid, won the most seats with 17.

An anti-Netanyahu alliance would require a tightrope deal among Lapid,Likud defector Gideon Saar, Netanyahu’s estranged protege Naftali Bennett —a hardline religious nationalist — and a group of centrist and left-wingparties.

In an unprecedented twist for Israeli coalition politics, it appearsimpossible for either camp to form a government without support from theconservative Islamic Raam Party, headed by Mansour Abbas, who controls fourseats.

Abbas has said he is open to hearing from all sides, but the far-rightReligious Zionism party has ruled out sitting in a government with Raam,complicating Netanyahu’s coalition hopes.

It is also far from certain that the anti-Netanyahu bloc can coalesce,raising the prospect of a fifth election in less than three years.

Rivlin will select a leader on Wednesday charged with trying to form agovernment.

If they fail to do so, Rivlin will then move on to the next name on hislist.

Netanyahu was formally charged last year with accepting improper gifts, andseeking to trade regulatory favours with media moguls in exchange forpositive coverage.

Anti-Netanyahu protesters, who dub him the “Crime Minister”, surrounded thecourt ahead of his last appearance in February, and are expected to do soagain on Monday.

Judges have said Netanyahu can leave the courtroom after the openingarguments, when the witness testimony begins.

No quick resolution is expected.

The trial enters a more intensive, evidentiary phase on Monday but a rulingis still several months off.

Netanyahu would not be compelled to resign as prime minister unless he isconvicted with all appeals exhausted. That could take several years.