Netanyahu’s corruption trial begins as Israel grapples with deadlocked fourth election

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appeared in court on Monday at the start of his long-awaited corruption trial, while across town, rival parties began negotiations to once again attempt to form one government after another. electoral stalemate.

Legal and political processes have become intertwined as Israel grapples with the reality of a prime minister who is under indictment, and has failed to form a stable government in two years, yet still won by far the most votes. in the March 23 elections. .

Netanyahu, 71, sat with his arms crossed as prosecutors made their opening statement against him on charges of fraud, bribery and breach of trust. At the center of his case is the accusation that he granted illegal favors to powerful businessmen in exchange for positive media coverage.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu leaves the Jerusalem district court room on Monday.Abir Sultan / Pool via Reuters

“The case before the honorable court today is an important and severe case of government corruption,” said Liat Ben-Ari, the chief prosecutor. She accused the prime minister of “using the power of his office to further his personal wishes” and said prosecutors would present a “tapestry” of evidence.

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Netanyahu denies wrongdoing and has denounced the accusation as a politically motivated “witch hunt” against him. The prime minister sat down during the prosecutors’ opening statement, but left before witness testimony began.

Dozens of protesters for and against Netanyahu gathered in front of the Jerusalem District Court as the trial began. “I came here to support, support and strengthen my great leader,” said Meir Azarzar, a Netanyahu supporter.

A heavy police presence surrounded the building as Netanyahu’s bodyguards entered the court with him. The trial will last three days a week and it will likely be weeks before the three-judge panel renders a verdict. There is no jury.

A few miles away, Israeli President Reuven Rivlin began meeting with representatives of the political parties that won seats in last month’s elections. The election, Israel’s fourth in two years, ended without a majority for either Netanyahu’s right-wing bloc or the opposition coalition determined to topple him.

The role of the president is usually ceremonial. But without a clear election result, it is up to Rivlin to decide who should get the first chance to try to form a government.

Even when the process began, Rivlin struck a pessimistic note about the chances that anyone could improvise a majority.

“At the moment, I don’t see a way to form a coalition,” he said in publicly released remarks. He added: “After four electoral campaigns, democracy has run out.”

If no one can form a coalition, Israel will head to its fifth election since April 2019, continuing an unprecedented period of political chaos in the Jewish state.

Netanyahu’s Likud Party emerged from the elections with 30 seats, making it by far the largest party. But even with the support of various nationalist and religious parties, Netanyahu still falls short of the 61 seats he needs for a majority government.

The Likud delegation to the president was led by Amir Ohana, the justice minister, who noted that more than 1 million Israelis voted for Netanyahu despite the charges against him. “I think they expressed a high level of trust in him and a lack of trust in others,” he said.

The second largest party after Likud is the centrist Yesh Atid, which won 17 seats. The party’s leader, former journalist Yair Lapid, has the backing of smaller liberal parties, but has not been able to unite the anti-Netanyahu coalition under his leadership.

“When we have a prime minister who is now in court defending himself, we need a candidate who works for the good of the State of Israel,” said Orna Barbivai, head of Yesh Atid’s delegation to the president.

Rivlin is expected to decide on Wednesday whether to grant the mandate to Netanyahu, Lapid or possibly someone else. The elected will have 28 days to try to form a majority government.

In an unexpected twist of the elections, a small Islamist party called the United Arab List won four seats and may maintain the balance of power in the next Israeli parliament. Both the Netanyahu bloc and the opposition have courted the party in hopes of winning its support.

However, in the complicated puzzle of Israeli politics, winning the support of one Arab party could alienate other Jewish parties, meaning that potential leaders could gain support in one direction and lose it in another.

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