Wednesday, October 28, 2020

Israel: PM Benjamin Netanyahu corruption hearing opens in Jerusalem

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Benjamin Netanyahu’s lawyers began a last-ditch effort today to convince prosecutors not to bring criminal charges against the prime minister as his long-awaited corruption hearing opened in Jerusalem.

Mr Netanyahu faces bribery, fraud and breach of trust allegations related to a series of long-running scandals which have dogged him in recent years and threatened to topple his 13-year premiership.

Under Israeli law, defendants are entitled to what is known as a pre-indictment hearing, an opportunity to confront the evidence against them and try to convince prosecutors not bring an indictment.

That hearing began Wednesday morning behind closed doors at the Ministry of Justice building in east Jerusalem, where ten of Mr Netanyahu’s lawyers squared off against a team of 20 prosecutors.

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The prime minister himself did not attend. He has consistently denied any wrongdoing.

Amit Hadad, one of Mr Netanyahu’s lawyers, expressed confidence that the charges would be dropped. “We’re sure that when we finish, there will be no choice but to close the case,” he said on the way into the meeting.

But Israeli legal experts say that while Mr Benjamin Netanyahu may succeed in whittling down some of the charges, he is unlikely to convince prosecutors to close the case altogether.

The final decision lies with Avichai Mandelblit, Israel’s attorney general. Mr Mandelblit is a former aide to Mr Netanyahu has enraged the prime minister by moving ahead with charges against him and his wife.

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The pre-indictment hearing will take place over four sessions between now and next Monday. Mr Mandelblit is then expected to make a final decision on charges sometime before the end of the year.

It is an unsettled legal question whether an Israeli prime minister can remain in office if he is charged with a crime. If Mr Benjamin Netanyahu is indicted, the question is likely to be immediately litigated in front of the Supreme Court.

The prime minister was due to spend the morning in a meeting with his Right-wing and religious political allies, amid stalled coalition negotiations following last month’s stalemated elections.

Neither Mr Netanyahu nor his centrist rival, Benny Gantz, are able to form a majority government on their own and so far the two sides have been unable to reach a deal on a national unity government.

Mr Netanyahu has been given the first chance to try to form a majority coalition but has indicated he may give up as early as this week, meaning that Mr Gantz will then get a chance.

The most serious charge against Mr Netanyahu, known as Case 4000, is that he used his position to illegally change regulations to benefit the Israeli telecomms giant Beezq. In return, he allegedly sought more positive coverage from a news website owned by Bezeq’s main shareholder.

In another case, known as Case 2000, he is accused of offering a corrupt deal with the publisher of Yedioth Ahronoth to help weaken a rival paper in return for better coverage.

Finally, in Case 1000, he is alleged to have illegally accepted lavish gifts from wealthy businessmen, including champagne, cigars, and jewellery.

Mr Netanyahu denies breaking the law in any of the cases.

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