Israelis go to the polls to decide the Knesset members for the fourth time in two years. Benjamin Netanyahu is still the potential winner lacking the majority.
Once the most influential man in his region, Netanyahu was dubbed “King of Israel” by Time magazine. However, he was not powerful enough to push back Israel’s unforgiving press. As a result, he’s accused of buying his way into a big news organization’s newsroom and deliberately dictating positive stories that helped him win reelection twice.
After 12 years in office, Israel’s longest-serving prime minister was (and is) charged with bribery, fraud, and breach of trust. If sentenced, he could face a lengthy prison sentence.
It’s the first time in Israeli history that a prime minister in power has faced charges. When senior Israeli officials are accused of misconduct, they usually resign, as did Netanyahu’s predecessor, former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.
Netanyahu, on the other hand, is not forced by constitution to resign after being charged and has declined to do so. The conservative leader denies corruption and claims that he is the target of a left-wing witch hunt, a charge that has ignited a bitter culture war in Israel’s courts, law enforcement, and media.
For more than 800 days, the case threw the country into political chaos. Three national elections were held in Israel, each acting as a vote on Netanyahu, but no definite winner emerged. The fourth is underway today and Netanyahu, with his massive judicial file, is still a major candidate.
Emanuel Gross, professor emeritus of law at Haifa University, describes it “terrible. It’s the first time that an acting prime minister is on trial, criminal trial, indicted by very, very serious offenses. This is a crucial moment.”
Bribery is the main charge filed against the Prime Minister. Prosecutors suspect Netanyahu of granting a telecommunications executive hundreds of millions of dollars in regulatory favors in exchange for secret editorial power over Israel’s second largest news portal.
Netanyahu and his wife Sara reportedly made hundreds of editorial requests of the executive and his wife, put reports and pictures, destroyed unflattering news, and influenced the recruiting of editors and reporters for nearly five years, including during his 2013 and 2015 reelection campaigns.
But this isn’t a typical bribery case involving money or sex. No Israeli official ever been charged with extortion in exchange for favorable press coverage.
In two other cases, Netanyahu faces minor allegations of bribery and breach of trust. He’s suspected of negotiating a hidden agreement with the publisher of Israel’s largest news portal, YNet, and its sister outlet, Yediot Ahronot, to facilitate legislation that would undercut the owner’s main rival in return for the owner’s critical editorial line toward Netanyahu being overturned.
The prime minister is also accused of orchestrating deals with US and Israeli officials to help a Hollywood producer who allegedly supplied the Netanyahus with an endless supply of luxury jewelry, cigars, and champagne. An Australian businessman has provided Netanyahu with a monthly shipment of cigars and champagne too.
After months of struggles with attorney General, the court process, and opening hearing, Netanyahu, in a tightly secured Jerusalem District Court, pleaded not guilty before a three-judge jury.
The sarcastic side of the story is that the corruption trial was postponed until after today’s election from a month earlier. This is while the allegations against him have proved to be a critical problem in former three futile elections.
The general expectation was that the curious case of Netanyahu would be settled before any more elections was to be held. This gains more significance considering the fact that the main charges against Netanyahu relates the election and potential influence imposed on it in previous 12 years. The same controlling influence might be exerted on today’s election.