Israeli prime minister returns to court as the parties weigh in on his fate


JERUSALEM (AP) – Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu returned to court for his corruption trial on Monday as the country’s political parties had to weigh whether to form the next government after narrowly divided elections or resign to focus. in your legal problems.

Between witness testimony in a Jerusalem court and consultations in the president’s office across the city, it promised to be a day of extraordinary political drama, highlighting Netanyahu’s increasingly desperate efforts to stay in the game. can.

He is Israel’s longest-serving prime minister and has held onto power through four tight elections in less than two years, even as he has faced allegations of bribery, fraud and breach of trust. The March 23 election was largely a referendum on his leadership, but it did not produce a clear verdict.

Meanwhile, Israel’s political parties began meeting with President Reuven Rivlin to recommend which candidate should be tasked with forming the next government.

After each election, the president of Israel is responsible for appointing a party leader to try to form a ruling majority. That decision is usually clear, but Rivlin faces a difficult choice given the fragmented electoral results that left the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, divided among 13 parties with wide ideological differences.

Netanyahu’s allies and enemies did not win a ruling majority. So his fate could depend on Naftali Bennett, a former right-wing ally with whom he has tightened ties, and Mansour Abbas, the leader of a small Islamist Arab party who also has to compromise with the pro or anti-Netanyahu. blocks.

Later on Monday, Bennett recommended himself as the next prime minister, deepening Israel’s political stalemate. His right-wing Yamina party had been in a position to serve as kingmaker, but refused to take sides.

Yamina has only seven seats in parliament, so it is a long shot to be able to form a governing coalition. Bennett hopes he can become a consensus candidate who can bridge deep divisions between rival factions.

Rivlin was previously quoted by Israeli media as saying that he did not see how a ruling coalition could be formed and expressed concern that Israel would enter a fifth round of elections.

At the Jerusalem District Court, Netanyahu sat with his lawyers as the lead prosecutor, Liat Ben-Ari, read the charges against him.

“The relationship between Netanyahu and the defendants became a bargaining chip, something that could be negotiated,” he said. “The currency could distort the judgment of a public servant.”

Netanyahu’s lawyers tried to rebuttal, but were interrupted by Judge Rivka Friedman-Feldman, who said they had already answered the charges earlier in the trial. The judge then ordered a short recess, during which Netanyahu left the court.

Outside the courtroom, dozens of supporters and opponents of the prime minister gathered to protest on opposite sides of the building amid a heavy police presence, highlighting Israel’s deep divisions. Anti-Netanyahu protesters have held weekly demonstrations for months, asking him to resign.

Just a few kilometers (miles) away, a delegation from Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud party formally recommended him as prime minister in a meeting with Rivlin.

Netanyahu is accused of taking bribes, fraud and breach of trust in three cases.

The first implies that Netanyahu allegedly received gifts worth hundreds of thousands of dollars from wealthy friends, including Hollywood film producer Arnon Milchan and Australian billionaire James Packer. In the second case, Netanyahu is accused of trying to orchestrate positive coverage in a major Israeli newspaper in exchange for stopping the distribution of a free pro-Netanyahu tabloid.

The third, dubbed Case 4000, which will be the focus of first witness testimony on Monday, alleges that Netanyahu backed hundreds of millions of dollars worth of legislation for the owner of Israeli telecoms giant Bezeq in exchange for positive coverage in his Walla news site.

Netanyahu has denied wrongdoing, dismissing the charges against him as part of a “witch hunt” by the media and law enforcement to remove him. His trial began last year and could last another two years.

In January, prosecutors alleged 315 cases that Walla is asked to modify his coverage so that it is more favorable to Netanyahu and his family. They said 150 of them involved Netanyahu himself.

According to the charges, Shaul Elovitch, Bezeq’s chief executive, “exerted strong and continuous pressure” on Ilan Yeshua, Walla’s former editor-in-chief, to change the articles on the website to meet the demands of Netanyahu and his family.

Yeshua, who took the stand after Netanyahu left, said he regularly received requests from Elovitch and aides to the prime minister, asking him to smear the prime minister’s political opponents, including Bennett. He then passed the requests on to the site’s top editors.

Bennett was referred to as the “mischievous religious” in internal messages, Yeshua said.

Israeli law does not require prime ministers to resign while they are indicted, and Netanyahu has refused to do so. That has left the country deeply divided. An emergency unit government formed last year to address the coronavirus crisis was embroiled in political disputes and collapsed in less than a year over its inability to pass a budget.

Netanyahu surpassed Israel’s founding father David Ben Gurion in 2019 as the country’s longest-serving prime minister, having held the position continuously since 2009 and for several years in the 1990s.

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Associated Press journalist Joseph Krauss in Jerusalem contributed to this report.

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