Netanyahu's pretrial corruption hearing begins as unity government talks falter
Following the four-day hearing, Israel's attorney
general will decide whether to indict Netanyahu on fraud and bribery charges in
three corruption cases.
The Ministry of Justice in Jerusalem where the
pre-indictment hearing for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is taking
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s political
and personal future hangs in the balance this week, as a pretrial hearing
weighing whether to indict him on corruption charges kicked off.
Following the four-day hearing which began Wednesday,
Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit will decide whether to indict Israel’s
longest serving prime minister on fraud and bribery charges in three corruption
Netanyahu denies any wrongdoing and has said he is the
victim of a politically orchestrated “witch-hunt” by the media and the left.
The start of the hearing came after talks to form a
unity government,following last month's election that ended in a stalemate, hit
a further snag Tuesday when Netanyahu’s rival, Blue and White party leader Benny
Gantz, called off a meeting between the two leaders slated for Wednesday.
The meeting was meant to be a last-ditch attempt by
Netanyahu to cobble together the unity government between his right-wing Likud
and the centrist Blue and White party. But in a statement published Tuesday,
Blue and White said the preconditions for future meetings between the
negotiating teams had not been met.
The faltering negotiations come after Israeli President
Reuven Rivlin tapped Netanyahu to form a new government following the
inconclusive Sept. 17 election that left neither Netanyahu nor Gantz with a
61-seat governing majority.
Israeli presidents are responsible for picking prime
minister candidates after elections. The process is usually a formality but has
recently become much more complicated due to the election deadlock.
Gantz, a former army chief of staff, has publicly
resisted the idea of allying with Netanyahu, citing the corruption charges
Benny Gantz, leader of the Blue and White political
alliance, gives a statement and toast for Rosh Hashanah to reporters in Tel Aviv
in September. Jack Guez / AFP - Getty Images
In one of the three cases due to be heard in the coming
days, Netanyahu is accused of granting regulatory favors to the controlling
shareholder of Israel’s telecom giant Bezeqin exchange for positive coverage on
its subsidiary news site, Walla.
In a second case, Netanyahu and his family are accused
of receiving lavish presentsfrom supporters in return for passing legislation
that ensures Israelis who come back to live in Israel from abroad are exempt
from paying taxes for 10 years.
The third case alleges that Netanyahu offered
advantageous legislation to a major newspaper in return for favorable coverage.
Gantz has previously said his issue lies with governing
alongside Netanyahu personally and not the Likud party. But Netanyahu has made
it clear that he’s not willing to step aside so the Likud party can form a unity
In a video message posted on Twitter on Sunday,
Netanyahu said the only option was for him to serve first as prime minister
before handing the reins to Gantz within a unity government.
“Regrettably, Likud is sticking to its precondition of
Netanyahu first," Blue and White said in a statement released the same day.
The party accused Likud of acting "with the sole aim of
generating support in preparation for dragging Israel into another round of
elections at the behest of Netanyahu."
If the talks fail, Netanyahu will likely have to hand
his mandate to form Israel’s next government to a rival — probably Gantz. If he
doesn’t succeed, Rivlin can select another legislator or set in motion what
would be the third election in under a year.
Netanyahu is not expected to appear during the four-day
hearing that is scheduled for Wednesday, Thursday, Sunday and Monday.
If he is indicted, it could take months for his trial to
begin and he could seek a plea bargain similar to what his wife, Sara, did
earlier this year when she admitted criminal wrongdoingover the misuse of state
funds in a deal that saw her serve no jail time.
However one of Netanyahu's lawyers, Amit Hadad, ruled
out the possibility of a plea bargain Wednesday.
“We believe in the hearing and believe afterwards all
three cases will be closed,” he said before entering the hearing.
And even if Netanyahu is indicted whilst still prime
minister, Israeli law does not require him to resign unless he is convicted.
He had previously hoped that if he served a fifth term
as prime minister, he would be able to pass legislation that would grant him
immunity from prosecution. It is unclear whether enough lawmakers would now back
the move. NBC News