Benjamin Netanyahu faced some of his biggest challenges to date, both legally and politically, in a historic split-screen day in Israel.
Shortly after 9 a.m. on Monday, the Israeli Prime Minister entered the Jerusalem district courthouse for the evidentiary phase of his corruption trial. Sitting with a mask on, arms crossed and head tilted to the side, Netanyahu listened to the deputy state prosecutor Liat Ben-Ari’s opening speech, laying out the charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust across three cases.
“The case before the honorable court today is a significant and serious case in the field of government corruption,” Ben-Ari said. “Defendant One is the Prime Minister of Israel who, according to the indictment, made improper use of the great governmental power entrusted to him, inter alia, to demand and derive improper benefits from the owners of major media outlets in Israel, in order to advance his personal affairs for a long time.”
Minutes later and less than two miles away, Netanyahu’s Likud party colleagues were at Israeli President Reuven Rivlin’s residence, trying to convince him to give Netanyahu the mandate to form a government – despite not having a clear way forward to build a big enough coalition after last month’s election.
Though Netanyahu’s party won the most number of seats in the Israeli parliament, known as the Knesset, neither he nor his opponents have been able to thus far prove they have the numbers needed to bring together enough parties to reach the 61 seat majority necessary.
Netanyahu faces charges in three separate cases.
The most serious charges stem from Case 4000. Prosecutors say Netanyahu advanced regulatory benefits worth up to 1 billion shekels (approximately $280 million) to Shaul Elovitch, Netanyahu’s friend who was at the time the controlling shareholder of Bezeq. In exchange, prosecutors say Elovitch gave Netanyahu favorable news coverage in online news site Walla! News, also owned by Elovitch.
The first witness called on Monday was the former Walla CEO Ilan Yeshua. Yeshua testified that he was regularly told by Elovitch and his wife Iris, as well as by some of Netanyahu’s advisers, to make editors change articles or remove content about Netanyahu and his family, and to post content that would paint Netanyahu in a positive light – and do the opposite for Netanyahu’s political opponents.
In Case 2000, prosecutors say Netanyahu sought favorable coverage from the publisher of one of Israel’s largest newspapers, Yedioth Ahronoth, in exchange for limiting the circulation of the paper’s main rival, Israel Hayom.
And in Case 1000, prosecutors say Netanyahu received gifts such as cigars and champagne from overseas businessmen, something a public servant should not do.
Netanyahu did not speak during Monday’s proceedings but has previously denied all the charges, describing them as a media-fueled witch hunt against him. He insists he wants the case to run its course, confident it will crumble.
In a televised statement that was also posted on his Facebook page on Monday afternoon, Netanyahu called the trial a “fixed game,” even going so far as calling the trial an attempted coup.
“This is what a governmental coup attempt looks like,” Netanyahu said. “This is an effort to topple a strong rightwing prime minister.”
Hundreds of witnesses are expected to be called in the trial, which will run Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesday every week until further notice. And, unless he’s granted special permission, Netanyahu may need to attend the entire trial (on Monday, he was allowed to leave after the prosecutor’s opening remarks).
The events at court and the coalition negotiations are intimately linked. If Netanyahu’s Likud party colleagues achieve success at the President’s residence, that could help with his potential success in court, says the head of the Israeli Democracy Institute Yohanan Plessner.
“For the past two years the legal clock and the political clock are completely intertwined. Nothing that happens in Israeli politics can be really understood without understanding the timeline of Netanyahu’s trial. Netanyahu’s key motivation is to dodge the legal process or to try and somehow overcome it,” Plessner told CNN.
Plessner said Netanyahu could do so by appointing a new attorney general, or by influencing the appointment of certain judges who could affect his trial. Other critics of the Israeli leader say he wants to pass a new immunity law that would protect a sitting Prime Minister from being indicted.
“Netanyahu’s pre-election goal was to achieve a solid 61 majority that would allow him to legislate laws that would basically undermine the independence of the judiciary and allow him to stop, subvert, undermine the legal process that he is facing,” Plessner said.
Netanyahu has not shied away from his desire to reform the judiciary.
“Everybody understands there has to be a reform. The rule of law is protected when people don’t do witch hunts, when they don’t try to bring down a strong rightwing prime minister using judicial means,” he told the Jerusalem Post last month. “They can’t beat me in the polls so they use these absurd charges that will collapse and are collapsing in front of our eyes.”
As the trial continues, so does the political drama. If no party is able to form a governing coalition, the country may face an unprecedented fifth election in two years – which could lead to an unprecedented situation where Netanyahu will be splitting his time between the campaign trial and the court room.