Israel election: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in court as president begins government formation process

The high-profile trial resumed on Monday as Israel's president began consulting parties about prime ministerial candidates

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Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was fighting corruption charges in court again on Monday, while struggling to hold on to the premiership after contested elections.

The country’s divided leadership is vying over who should clinch the premiership after elections last month.

Israel’s longest-serving leader sat with his arms crossed as prosecutors outlined the three cases against him, involving allegations Mr Netanyahu sought positive media coverage and received lavish gifts such as cases of champagne.

“The charges are about the meeting point between the desires of the business people and the interests of the prime minister,” said prosecutor Liat Ben Ari, barely audible over the rumble of dozens of pro-Netanyahu supporters rallying outside court.

Supporters of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gather outside the district court in Jerusalem on April 5, 2021, ahead of Prime Minister's corruption trial. Judges have ordered Netanyahu appear at the Jerusalem District Court for the prosecution's opening arguments in the case where he is charged with bribery, fraud and breach of trust -- allegations he denies. / AFP / menahem kahana
Supporters of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gather outside the district court in Jerusalem on April 5, 2021. AFP

Monday’s hearing saw the first witness take the stand, with Ilan Yeshua, former CEO of the Walla news website, testifying that he received instructions from the prime minister’s office regarding coverage of Mr Netanyahu and his adversaries.

“It was clear that we were a website that did what the prime minister’s office asked us,” he told the court, detailing events he said took place between 2013 and 2016.

The code word for tailored articles was “shish kebab” because they were made to order, Mr Yeshua said.

Editorial staff nicknamed Mr Netanyahu “Kim”, after North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, and dubbed the premier’s wife Sara “Ri Sol”, after the North Korean dictator’s wife, he said.

Telecoms scandal 

Mr Netanyahu has been charged with bribery over the Walla affair for allegedly taking regulatory steps to favour Bezeq, a telecoms firm whose majority shareholder Saul Elovitch owns the news website.

The premier is also on trial for allegedly receiving around $200,000 worth of gifts from Hollywood mogul Arnon Milchan, an Israeli, and Australian billionaire James Packer.

He denies the charges and is not expected to attend the hearings in full, which are set to continue for weeks.

For Mr Netanyahu’s appearance on Monday a buffer zone was erected outside the courthouse, dividing the two protests, with opponents of the defendant standing behind a “Crime Minister'' banner.

“We are here to make sure he’ll be judged by the law,” said Dalit Levinger, 55, while heavily-armed police filled the streets and surrounding rooftops.

“We believe in justice, we believe in democracy, and we’re doing our best in a democratic way to bring the truth out to the world,” said the airline employee.

Mr Netanyahu’s trial began last May, just days after he was sworn into office after forming a coalition with his political rival Benny Gantz.

Months later and Israel's political crisis has only intensified, with a fourth inconclusive election in two years following the collapse in December of the short-lived alliance.

Mr Netanyahu’s Likud emerged from the March 23 election as the largest party with 30 seats, demonstrating enduring support among his right-wing base including those gathered outside court.

Protesters gather during an anti-government demonstration outside the district court in Jerusalem on April 5, 2021, ahead of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's corruption trial. Judges have ordered Netanyahu appear at the Jerusalem District Court for the prosecution's opening arguments in the case where he is charged with bribery, fraud and breach of trust -- allegations he denies. / AFP / menahem kahana
Opponents of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shout slogans outside the district court in Jerusalem on April 5, 2021. AFP

“We think what the court’s doing to him is unbelievable,” said Revital Zion, a carer, describing Mr Netanyahu as “the best prime minister”.

“We come here to support him, to stand with him and to tell him: we love you, we support you, always,” said the 53-year-old.

Government formation in the balance

Although Likud topped the results, Mr Netanyahu and his allies are short of the 61-seat majority needed to form a government. The opposition also lacks a clear path to a coalition and negotiations in recent days have failed to break the deadlock.

As politicians seek to avoid a fifth election later this year, President Reuven Rivlin on Monday began consultations with party leaders to pick a candidate to try forming a government.

He will meet with representatives from the 13 parties which made it into parliament, hearing their nominations before giving the mandate to a candidate by the Wednesday deadline.

Mr Netanyahu’s bloc includes far-right and Orthodox Jewish parties, while the opposition camp spans the political spectrum. Two parties could tip the balance: the Islamist Ra’am party with four seats, or the right-wing Yamina with seven.

Yamina has nominated its own leader, Naftali Bennett, but it remains unlikely he will get broad support, meaning the party could ally with either the pro- or anti-Netanyahu bloc.

Ra’am, whose leader Mansour Abbas broke away from the Arab-led Joint List alliance before the election, is scheduled to be the last party to meet with the president late on Monday.

Once Mr Rivlin taps a candidate, they have up to six weeks to form a government before the task falls to another politician.

If ultimately none of the 120 legislators is able to build a coalition by early July, elections will be called for late October.