Netanyahu in court as Israel's lawmakers mull over his political fate

Benjamin Netanyahu’s efforts to remain in power face a double-pronged challenge, with Israel’s prime minister back in a Jerusalem courtroom for his corruption trial while at the same time critical talks on his political future were held following last month’s inconclusive election.

The witness testimony and evidence stage of a case assessing whether the 71-year-old leader is guilty of bribery, fraud and breach of trust – repeatedly delayed due to the pandemic – began on Monday morning.

Meanwhile, across town, President Reuven Rivlin started key consultations at his residence with parliamentarians on how to form a government that could help save or end Netanyahu’s career.

In two sides of a city Israel claims as its capital, both the legal and political fate of the country’s longest-serving leader was being decided.

“There isn’t a director in the world who would agree to buy a screenplay with that kind of overt symbolism,” wrote the columnist . “The fact that the two formative events are going to happen simultaneously on a split-screen is unbelievable … I do know that whoever planed this has a very good sense of humour and possesses a real flair for drama.”

Scores of police officers were positioned around the Jerusalem district court as dozens of pro- and anti-Netanyahu demonstrators gathered. Netanyahu, the first serving Israeli leader to go on trial, has repeatedly denied any wrongdoing, alleging he is the victim of a politically motivated witch-hunt.

He is alleged to have accepted hundreds of thousands of pounds in luxury gifts from billionaire friends and traded favours with Israeli media and telecoms moguls for favourable news coverage.

The prime minister sat in court with his arms crossed as the lead prosecutor, Liat Ben-Ari, read out the charges against him, accusing him of being involved in “a serious case of government corruption”.

“The relationship between Netanyahu and the [other] defendants became currency, something that could be traded,” she said. “The currency could distort a public servant’s judgment.”

Monday’s hearing focused on case 4,000, which centres on allegations that the owners of Bezeq Israel Telecom provided positive coverage of the Netanyahus on its Walla news website in return for regulatory changes worth hundreds of millions of pounds.

Ilan Yeshua, the former CEO of Walla News, took the stand and made extraordinary allegations of interference since 2012 from his bosses, who he believed were being directed by the Netanyahu family, as well as other people close to the prime minister.

Yeshua described a hands-on process, from choosing accompanying photos to changing headlines in articles to skew coverage in favour of the Netanyahus, and to damage their opponents.

“I agree that ethically and publicly I can’t defend [it],” he told the court.

Unlike one of his predecessors, Ehud Olmert, who stepped down after it appeared he would be indicted, Netanyahu has refused to relinquish power. As Israeli law does not require prime ministers to resign while under indictment, Netanyahu will want to keep the premiership throughout what could be a years-long trial. He faces more than a decade in prison if convicted.

At the president’s residence in West Jerusalem, members from rightwing, centre-left, religious, far-right nationalist and Arab parties gave their recommendations on who should lead.

Under Israel’s political system, the president is tasked with picking a candidate to form a government. Normally this is a ceremonial process, with an obvious winner. However, a protracted political crisis has led to four back-to-back elections during the past two years where no candidate is significantly ahead.

By midday on Monday, Netanyahu had 39 endorsements, while the opposition leader Yair Lapid had 25. Neither man is expected to gather a 61-seat majority, suggesting a potential extension of the two-year deadlock and even an unwanted fifth election.

Current predictions indicate that for Netanyahu to succeed, he would need to bring together hardliners on the right and the United Arab List, a small Islamist party known in Hebrew as Ra’am. In a pragmatic attempt to gain influence, the United Arab List has not ruled out joining Netanyahu, but it would require serious negotiations.

Meanwhile, the far-right former settler leader Naftali Bennett, 48, who was Netanyahu’s defence minister but has since run against him, has emerged as a potential kingmaker.

In most scenarios, the prime minister would need the backing of a group seen as even more extreme – an alliance called Religious Zionism, which includes politicians who have expressed anti-gay views and want to expel “disloyal” Arabs from the state.

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