Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appeared before the Jerusalem District Court on Monday at the start of the evidentiary stage of his corruption trial, with the lead prosecutor in the case accusing him of “a severe case of governmental corruption.”
With his legal future up in the air, the Israeli leader’s political future was uncertain as well, as party representatives lined up at the President’s Residence across town throughout Monday to give their recommendations for the country’s next prime minister amid ongoing deadlock.
Lead state prosecutor Liat Ben-Ari opened the court proceedings with a speech in which she laid out the criminal charges against Netanyahu, describing the ways in which the prime minister allegedly abused the powers of his office in Cases 1000, 2000 and 4000.
Stressing that “every person is equal before the law,” Ben-Ari said that “the case before the honorable court today is a significant and severe case of governmental corruption.” The prime minister, she argued, used the “immense power of his office” to advance “his personal desires.”
“The relationship between Netanyahu and the defendants became currency, something that could be traded,” she said. “The currency could distort a public servant’s judgment.”
As the court hearing was held, hundreds of protesters supporting and opposing Netanyahu gathered outside the building, singing and chanting. Police kept the two camps separate.
Netanyahu denies wrongdoing in the cases, in which he has been charged with accepting improper gifts and seeking to trade regulatory favors with media moguls in exchange for positive coverage.
Inside, Ben-Ari told the court that Netanyahu acted “in order to demand and derive improper benefits from the owners of major media outlets in Israel, in order to promote his personal affairs, including at a time when he wanted to be reelected.”
Ben-Ari claimed Netanyahu “traded in his governmental power with businesspeople who own media bodies so that when he needed it, these strong media bodies would be available to him, and he would be able to win elections and affect his public standing.”
She said he abused his power “as a legislator and as a regulator, in order to cause or attempt to cause a media outlet to report in a different manner than it would have otherwise, solely to promote his personal matters.”
The accusations against the premier, she added, “deal with the meeting point, the intersection, between the desire of businessmen to enjoy the prime minister’s immense powers of office and the prime minister’s desire to create an open door for himself to influence Israel’s central media bodies.”
Ben-Ari maintained that the indictment against Netanyahu “is based on a broad tapestry of evidence, including direct and circumstantial evidence. The material is also based on a unique type of evidence: recordings of calls as well as real-time text messages. All of these will clearly and fully prove that which is described in the indictment.”
Ben-Ari set out the alleged illicit quid pro quo at the heart of the most serious case against Netanyahu, Case 4000, by alleging that the prime minister obtained what amounted to editorial control of the Walla news site, in return for arranging financial benefits for Shaul and Iris Elovitch, fellow defendants who were the majority shareholders in Walla and telecommunications giant Bezeq.
Netanyahu and his family, with his knowledge, made demands of the Elovitches “relating to the coverage Walla gave him, his family and others… access, and a right of veto on the appointments of reporters and editors. In return for these demands being met,” she said, Netanyahu “took steps to benefit” the Elovitches’ businesses, “utilizing his powers as prime minister and communications minister.”
Netanyahu’s attorneys attempted to raise objections following Ben-Ari’s opening remarks, but the judges rejected their complaints on procedural grounds.
“This isn’t the time,” Justice Rebecca Friedman-Feldman said.
Netanyahu left shortly after Ben-Ari finished her half-hour address, and before the start of testimony from the former editor of the Walla news site, Ilan Yeshua, a key witness in Case 4000.
The prime minister was last week given permission to suffice with attending just the opening of the court session where he would hear the charges against him.
Yeshua later told the court that during his time at Walla, he was instructed to play down negative articles about Netanyahu and his wife Sara and to boost stories that helped the premier.
Yeshua said he was told by his superiors to put out “positive articles and stories about the prime minister and his wife and occasionally about his son, but mostly about the prime minister and his wife.”
In addition, he said he was told to “put out negative stories against rivals of the prime minister,” such as Yamina party leader Naftali Bennett. “We put out a series of articles against Bennett and his wife,” he said.
Yeshua said the directives to change coverage came from his superiors, including then-Walla owner Shaul Elovitch. Prosecutors are claiming the favorable coverage was part of a quid pro quo between Netanyahu and Elovitch in exchange for regulatory and other favors for the Bezeq telecommunications company, which Elovitch also owned.
Yeshua said requests on coverage also came from the Prime Minister’s Office itself through emails and text messages.
He said Elovitch and his wife Iris couched their demands for positive coverage for the premier in ethical and political terms.
“They would say: ‘What are you, the [liberal] Haaretz newspaper? What are you, a website for leftists? What are you, a website for Hamas members?'” Yeshua recalled.
Yeshua said there were constant fights about such demands, but that “90 percent” of them were accepted in the end.
In Case 4000, Netanyahu allegedly used his powers when he served as both premier and communications minister from 2014 to 2017 to illicitly benefit telecommunications magnate Elovitch, the controlling shareholder of Bezeq telecom, in exchange for positive coverage of the prime minister and his family by the Bezeq-owned Walla news site, one of the most popular outlets in Israel. Elovitch and his wife Iris also face bribery charges in Case 4000. Other Bezeq officials were indicted in related, but separate, cases last year.
In a potential change of tactics, Ben-Ari indicated Monday that the state may move to separate the case against Shaul and Iris Elovitch from Netanyahu’s in a bid to force them to give testimony.
Currently, the Elovitches, who were also in court Monday, are facing charges alongside the premier and have refused so far to testify on their own behalf.
Ben-Ari said that if they continue to refuse, the prosecution may try to open a separate trial against them and then call them to testify against Netanyahu as witnesses in his trial, rather than defendants.
Likud remains faithful
Likud party members rallied in support of Netanyahu, with Transportation Minister Miri Regev, a longtime ally, tweeting that he “is not alone.”
“Behind you stand millions of citizens who support you and have again and again expressed complete trust in you,” Regev wrote.
Likud MK Shlomo Karhi told Channel 13 news he finds it hard to believe that the prime minister will have a fair trial.
“It is a political trial, I have no doubt about that,” Karhi said.
Monday will mark the prime minister’s third appearance in court since the indictments were filed against him in January 2020. The premier most recently appeared before the judges in February 2021, formally pleading not guilty to the charges.
Netanyahu’s legal troubles have been inextricably linked to his premiership and to the country’s current political impasse, which has resulted in four elections in the past two years. Opponents have cited the indictments against him in their campaigns and as a reason to not join a coalition with him, preventing Netanyahu from acquiring the 61 seats necessary to form a government as of Monday.
Netanyahu has also been accused by his rivals of seeking support for legislation granting him immunity, though he has denied this.
Agencies contributed to this report.