Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will attempt to project a business-as-usual approach Sunday, holding his new government’s first regular cabinet meeting hours before he is set to make history by becoming Israel’s first sitting prime minister on trial.
The government will hold its cabinet meeting at 11 a.m. Sunday. Four hours later, Netanyahu is scheduled to appear at the Jerusalem District Court for a plea hearing where he will hear the charges read out against him: bribery, fraud and breach of trust in one case, and fraud and breach of trust in two others.
The meeting comes less than a week after the new government — with a record-breaking 34 ministers — was sworn in, ending over a year of political deadlock and sealing a coalition agreement between Netanyahu and his chief rival, Benny Gantz of the Blue and White Party.
Gantz had sworn not to join a government under Netanyahu as long as he was facing legal trouble, but later pulled an about-face, agreeing to a power-sharing deal that will see him take power in 18 months.
Among the first orders of business for the new government will be a vote to set up the office of alternate prime minister, a new position created for Gantz — who is also defense minister — and which will later be assumed by Netanyahu if and when the rotation agreement goes ahead.
Ministers will also vote on the appointments of seven deputy ministers. All seven deputies will come from Likud and the ultra-Orthodox Shas and United Torah Judaism parties, which form the right-religious flank of the government. While the coalition deal allows Blue and White and parties from its left-center camp to also appoint deputy ministers, it has said it will not do so.
The government has been widely criticized for its bloated size — nearly half of the MKs in the coalition are ministers — and for the fact that ministries needed to be created in order to hand out enough ministerial posts, many of which are seen as political favors.
Two of those ministries, the Water Resources Ministry and Settlements Ministry, will be voted on as well Sunday.
Because of the size of the cabinet and social distancing regulations, the cabinet meeting will be held at the Knesset’s Chagall Hall, usually reserved for large ceremonies, rather than the normal government meeting room.
The meeting will also include votes on coronavirus-related matters and having schoolchildren tour Jerusalem more, according to a publicly released agenda.
Off to court
Despite needing three successive elections to forge a coalition, Netanyahu has managed to cling to power, cementing the public perception of him as something of an immovable political force. But even as he shelves one challenge, he’ll transition directly to another, as three criminal cases against him kick off Sunday, capping years of investigations and a bruising public campaign in which he strove to dismiss allegations against him as a witch hunt.
Sunday will mark the start of what is expected to be a years-long battle inside and outside the courtroom for the prime minister and his allies to prove his innocence and back up his claims of judicial malfeasance aimed at ousting him from power.
Netanyahu is accused of pushing regulatory favors in exchange for positive media coverage in the bribery case. He is also accused of attempting to reach a quid pro quo for positive media coverage and of taking expensive gifts from wealthy benefactors in the two other cases, which are considered less serious.
Also in the dock will be Shaul and Iris Elovitch, owners of the Bezeq telecommunications giant and the Walla news site, who prosecutors allege bribed Netanyahu; and Yedioth Ahronoth publisher Arnon Mozes, accused of trying to reach a quid-pro-quo deal with him to exchange positive coverage for legislation that would hamper the rival Israel Hayom freebie tabloid.
As the gavel hits wood, history will be made as Netanyahu becomes the first prime minister to stand trial while still in office. Under Israeli law, a sitting prime minister must only resign if he is convicted and all appeals are exhausted. Other ministers must resign once they are indicted.
Netanyahu’s predecessor Ehud Olmert served 16 months in jail for bribery and other charges. He stepped down before the start of his trials. Among the three-judge panel hearing his case with be Rivka Feldman-Friedman, one of the judges who convicted Olmert in 2015.
While detractors say the prime minister cannot handle both his government duties and the trial, Netanyahu has insisted that he can both manage the affairs of state and defend himself in court. He had sought, however, to avoid showing up for Sunday’s hearing, with his defense team describing it as merely a technical affair. Judges rejected that request, though he is expected to miss most other hearings, as Olmert did in his trials.
As Netanyahu hears his charges read out to him Sunday starting at 3 p.m. at the courthouse on Salah-a-Din street in East Jerusalem, at least two ministers and other backers of the prime minister will rally outside the courthouse after escorting him to the trial.
A separate protest against the premier is also set to be held near the court, with the Haaretz daily reporting that police were to boost their presence in the area.
“Likud voters don’t believe the premise created by prosecutors,” new Public Security Minister Amir Ohana, who oversees the police, said in an interview with Channel 12 Saturday. “We believe a great injustice was done to the right-wing camp. The right-wing camp is who is standing trial tomorrow.”
In the lead-up to the trial, Netanyahu’s backers have attempted to focus attention on discrediting his prosecution, with Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit, who indicted Netanyahu and is now also temporary head of the State Attorney’s Office, taking the brunt of the criticism.
Likud Education Minister Yoav Gallant lashed out at Mandelblit on Twitter Saturday.
“While Netanyahu is being given a field trial in the media and justice is being obstructed, prosecutors and the attorney general are refusing to reveal to the public the recordings of Mandelblit. What do they have to hide?” he said.
Gallant was referring to recordings from the so-called Harpaz Affair, a 2010 scandal in which Mandelblit as the top military prosecutor was briefly suspected of having helped IDF brass cover up a smear campaign. The case against him was dropped.
Opposition leader Yair Lapid accused the Likud lawmakers of inciting against the judges and Mandelblit.
“One after another, Likud ministers over the last day have gone on air for one purpose: To threaten the judges and incite with violent remarks against law enforcement. This is the only true coup attempt taking place here,” Lapid, who heads the Yesh Atid party, wrote on Twitter.
He added: “Netanyahu and Gantz — it’s your obligation to come out against this and clarify that you won’t allow Mandelblit or the court to be harmed.”
Mandelblit filed a police complaint last week after receiving death threats and other harassing messages as part of what he described to police to be an organized campaign. Two suspects were later detained and questioned by the Lahav 433 serious crimes unit.