JERUSALEM – After entering the record books last year as Israel’s longest-serving prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu will once again make history when he becomes the country’s first sitting leader to go on trial.
Surrounded by security guards, Netanyahu is set to march into Jerusalem’s district court for arraignment on a series of corruption charges on Sunday. The stunning scene will push Israel into uncharted political and legal territory, launching a process that could ultimately end the career of a leader who has been undefeatable at the ballot box for over a decade.
Netanyahu has been charged with fraud, breach of trust and accepting bribes in a series of cases. He is accused of accepting expensive gifts, such as cartons of champagne and cigars, from wealthy friends and offering favors to media moguls in exchange for favorable news coverage of him and his family.
In the most serious case, he is accused of promoting legislation that delivered hundreds of millions of dollars of profits to the owner of a major telecom company while wielding behind-the-scenes editorial influence over the firm’s popular news website.
Netanyahu has denied the charges, claiming he is the victim of an “attempted coup” by overaggressive police, biased prosecutors and a hostile media.
“It’s the classic deep state argument,” said Gayil Talshir, a political scientist at Israel’s Hebrew University. Netanyahu claims “an unelected movement is trying to remove him from power just because he is a representative of the right,” she said.
Netanyahu is not the first Israeli leader to go on trial. Both former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and former President Moshe Katsav went to prison in the 2010s — Olmert on corruption charges and Katsav for rape. But they stepped down to fight the charges.
As opposition leader in 2008, Netanyahu led the calls for Olmert to leave office, famously saying a leader “up to his neck” in legal troubles had no business governing a country.
But as the investigations have piled up, culminating with his indictment last November, Netanyahu has changed his tune. He has rejected calls to resign while repeatedly lashing out at the country’s legal system.
Among his favorite targets have been a former police chief and the current attorney general — both Netanyahu appointees — and the country’s Supreme Court. Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit recently filed a complaint to police over anonymous threats sent to his mobile phone.
Netanyahu’s conspiratorial claims of victimhood have played well with his base of religious and nationalist supporters. But it is unclear whether they will hold up in court, given the lack of evidence.
In the courtroom, the legal arguments are more likely to focus on his claims that his gifts were genuine shows of affection from close friends and that he never received anything in return for the favors he is accused of offering.
The case is expected to last for several years, given the vast number of witnesses and documents that are expected to be presented.
Netanyahu has done his best to avoid this moment. During a three-year investigation, which was slowed by Netanyahu's trips abroad and occasional security crises, he repeatedly claimed that investigators would “find nothing because there is nothing.”
He briefly tried, but failed, to win parliamentary immunity from prosecution. In March, his hand-picked justice minister delayed the trial by two months, citing coronavirus restrictions.
This week, judges rejected Netanyahu’s request to stay home on Sunday and allow his lawyers to represent him. Netanyahu had argued that his presence was unnecessary and costly, and that having his security detail in the courtroom would violate social-distancing requirements.
Nonetheless, he enters the courtroom with renewed strength.
After three bruising elections over the past year, Netanyahu was sworn into office this week for a fourth consecutive term.
All three elections were seen as referendums on his fitness for office, and all ended in deadlock. After the most recent vote in March, his rival, Benny Gantz, appeared to have mustered enough support in parliament to pass legislation that would have disqualified Netanyahu from serving as prime minister while under indictment.
But in a stunning turnaround, Gantz, citing fears of a fourth expensive election and the coronavirus pandemic, agreed to shelve the legislation and instead form a power-sharing government with Netanyahu.
The Supreme Court cleared the way for Netanyahu to remain in power. In a key ruling, it said an indicted politician may serve as prime minister — even though Israeli law requires all other office-holders to resign if charged with a crime.
Under their deal, Netanyahu was forced to yield some powers to Gantz, with each wielding a veto over most key decisions. Gantz will hold the title of “alternate prime minister,” and after 18 months, they will swap jobs.
Talshir, the political scientist, said the agreement creates troubling conflicts of interest. Netanyahu made sure he would be involved in the appointments of key officials, including Supreme Court judges and the next attorney general, who could influence any appeals process.
“Netanyahu’s perspective all this year was interfering with his own trial,” she said.
Under the deal, the alternate prime minister, like the premier, will not be required to resign due to criminal charges. That could ensure that Netanyahu remains in office throughout his trial and even into a possible appeals process.
It will also give him the opportunity to continue to attack the legal system. Netanyahu’s eldest son Yair, who often acts as his unofficial spokesman, posted a profile picture on Twitter that spells the word “prosecution” with a sewing machine as the first letter. The message: the case against the prime minister is unfairly “stitched up.”
Amir Fuchs, a researcher at the Israel Democracy Institute, said such attacks on the courts have caused great damage by persuading many Israelis to question the authority and integrity of Israel’s democratic institutions.
“It might be the most harmful thing that has happened to Israel’s democracy, this one and a half years of attacking the whole basis of the rule of law,” he said. “I hope we will have a long rehabilitation from that. But we’re not even in the start of it.”