JERUSALEM – It was a split-screen show that encapsulated the baffling condition of Israel and its democracy.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appeared in a Jerusalem court on Monday for the opening of the key and evidentiary phase of his corruption trial. Simultaneously, just two miles across town, his party representatives begged the country’s president to entrust him with forming Israel’s next government.
For many here, the extraordinary convergence of events was an illustration of a political and constitutional malaise that afflicts the nation and that worsens year after year.
After four inconclusive elections in two years, Netanyahu, Israel’s longest-serving prime minister, accused of bribery, fraud and breach of trust, and who denies wrongdoing, remains the most polarizing figure on the political stage. But he is also the leader of Israel’s largest party, which won the most seats in national elections last month.
With Netanyahu’s future at stake, analysts say his best bet to overcome his legal troubles is to stay in power and gain some form of immunity.
But with neither the pro-Netanyahu party bloc nor the grouping that opposes him able to form a coalition that can command a viable parliamentary majority, Israel seems stagnant, unable to completely condone it or remove it from the scene.
Now, experts said, the country’s democratic system is on the sidelines.
“Netanyahu and his supporters do not claim their innocence, but rather attack the very legitimacy of the trial and the judicial system,” said Shlomo Avineri, emeritus professor of political science at the Hebrew University.
“It is the prime minister’s right to go to court and plead not guilty,” he said. “But his defense is an attack on the legitimacy of the constitutional order.”
Mr. Netanyahu later made a statement which was broadcast live accusing the prosecution of carrying out a “witch hunt” against him and of attempting to remove him through a judicial coup.
He accused the Prosecutor’s Office of acting illegally by erasing recordings, ignoring testimonies that did not fit his thesis, and blackmailing witnesses, among other things. “This is how they try to overthrow a strong right-wing prime minister. This is what an administrative coup attempt looks like. “
Israel was approaching an unprecedented constitutional crisis, Professor Avineri In other words, its depth underlined by the symbolism of the two processes that take place in parallel.
The law gives President Reuven Rivlin great leeway as to who he nominates to form a government. Rivlin, a longtime rival of Netanyahu, said he would act like all former presidents did and entrust whoever had the best chance to form a government to win the trust of the new Parliament.
Divisions were raging loudly Monday on the street in front of the Jerusalem District Court, where dozens of pro and anti-Netanyahu protesters had gathered on opposite sides of the court.
Anti-corruption protesters held up placards with charges against the prime minister and chanted through megaphones. In one small scenario, lawmakers from his conservative Likud party claimed that the legal process was being used to remove Mr. Netanyahu after his opponents failed to do so at the polls.
“In the court system, our ballot choice is being murdered,” declared Galit Distel Etebaryan, a newly elected Likud lawmaker.
The State of Israel drama against Benjamin Netanyahu revolves around three cases in which Netanyahu is accused of exchanging official favors in exchange for gifts from wealthy moguls. The gifts ranged from deliveries of expensive cigars and champagne to the less tangible of flattering coverage in the mainstream media.
The first case being tried, known as Case 4000, is the heaviest and the only one in which he has been charged with bribery.
According to the indictment, Netanyahu used his power as prime minister and minister of communications at the time to assist Shaul Elovitch, a media mogul and friend, in a business merger that benefited Elovitch to the tune of tens of millions of dollars. . In return, Walla, a major Hebrew news site owned by Elovitch’s telecommunications company, gave the Netanyahu family favorable coverage, particularly around election time.
The long-awaited court session began on Monday with a lengthy speech by the chief prosecutor, Liat Ben-Ari. Mr. Netanyahu, who was supposed to be present, sat in the back of the courtroom.
Describing the case as “significant and serious,” Ms. Ben-Ari said that according to the indictment, Mr. Netanyahu, listed as “Defendant No. 1,” had “misused the great government power that he had been entrusted “to demand favors from media owners to advance his personal affairs, including” his desire to be reelected. “
Mr. Netanyahu left the court before the first witness, Ilan Yeshua, the former executive director of Walla, took the stand. More than 330 witnesses are expected to appear, so the trial could last for years.
Yeshua described how he would receive instructions from intermediaries to publish or highlight positive stories about Netanyahu and his wife, Sara, as well as articles that cast his political rivals in a negative light.
He said he relayed the requests to the newsroom and described his hourly and daily struggles with editors as a “nightmare.”
While many Israelis saw the trial as a triumph for the rule of law, critics said it was a distortion of justice, arguing that all politicians seek positive media coverage.
“Even if, after several years and tens of millions of shekels, the trial ends, as it should, with an acquittal for all parties, the country will bear the costs of this politicization of criminal law for many years to come”, Avi Bell , a law professor and senior fellow at the Kohelet Policy Forum, a conservative-leaning Jerusalem-based think tank, said in a statement
The ongoing parallel political process at Rivlin’s official residence did little to dispel the feeling that Israel remained trapped in a loop of political uncertainty and instability.
One after another, delegations from the 13 elected parties to the Knesset arrived on Monday to announce which candidate they backed to form the next government.
Netanyahu, whose Likud party won 30 seats in the 120-seat parliament, received 52 recommendations from his right-wing and ultra-Orthodox allies. It remained to be seen how many of their opponents they could muster.
The remaining 90 parliamentary seats are divided among a dozen other parties. Yair Lapid’s centrist Yesh Atid party came in second with 17 seats. All others resulted in single-digit victories.
The political stalemate has been compounded by Mr. Netanyahu’s refusal to step aside during the trial and by the incoherence of the anti-Netanyahu camp, made up of parties with conflicting agendas. Some have ruled out sitting in government with others.
Many analysts believe that the deadlock will lead to a fifth election, although some small parties that now have a lot of power would risk being eliminated in any quick return to the polls.
The large number of festivals is a sign that “Israeli cohesion is crumbling,” said Yedidia Stern, president of the Jewish People’s Policy Institute in Jerusalem.
“Israeli society is very fragmented,” he said. “The lack of cohesion in Israeli society will not go away just because a choice is this way or another.”