By Ilan Fuchs, Ph.D.
Faculty Member, Legal Studies
In recent months, the Netanyahu trial for bribery, fraud and breach of trust has garnered public attention, particularly since the evidentiary phase of the trial began. During this time, the first witness for the prosecution, Ilan Yeshua, former CEO of news site Walla! Communications Channels Ltd., was interrogated.
Yeshua’s testimony and cross-examination by Benjamin Netanyahu’s attorneys left many of Netanyahu’s supporters very happy and hopeful for an acquittal. While any celebrations might be premature, Netanyahu’s legal team did a great job making this prosecution witness tumble over his previous statements.
The case is far from over, but the trial being held in the county court in Jerusalem is the best show in town. It might be the end of Netanyahu’s career if he loses or a new beginning if he is acquitted.
The Three Cases of the Netanyahu Trial
The trial is focusing on three separate police investigations: Case 1000, Case 2000 and Case 4000.
Case 1000 deals with presents given to the Netanyahu family by Arnon Milchan, an Israeli millionaire who does business in the U.S., and James Packer, a billionaire from Australia. In exchange for gifts that were mostly expensive champagne and cigars, Netanyahu is accused of using his power to intervene with government authorities on Milchan’s behalf. Netanyahu allegedly helped to further Milchan’s business initiatives and even approached U.S. authorities to enable Milchan to renew his visa.
Case 2000 accuses Netanyahu of making a deal with Arnon “Noni” Mozes. Mozes is the owner of Yediot Aharonot, the biggest newspaper in Israel, which is known for running anti-Netanyahu articles.
According to the prosecution, Netanyahu promised Mozes that he would pass legislation to limit Israel Hayom’s circulation and growth in exchange for Yediot Aharonot hiring more pro-Netanyahu journalists. Israel Hayom, a pro-Netanyahu Israeli newspaper that is circulated for free, was owned by Sheldon Adelson. Adelson, who passed away this year, was a Las Vegas billionaire who supported Netanyahu and right-wing political causes.
Case 4000 accuses Netanyahu of making a deal with Israeli billionaire Shaul Elovitch, the owner of Israeli telecommunications company Bezeq. This deal involved Elovitch ensuring positive news coverage for Netanyahu through Walla! in exchange for Netanyahu’s help with regulatory and financial matters.
The Witnesses in the Netanyahu Trial
Ilan Yeshua’s testimony has been heard three times a week for the past few months. Elovitch’s telecommunications company, Bezeq, owns Walla!. Yeshua said he was pressured by Elovitch to take down reports that Netanyahu and his family found unfavorable.
On cross-examination, however, Elovitch stumbled several times. Netanyahu’s lawyers questioned Yeshua about other politicians, and he said other politicians who called Elovitch also had negative stories about them taken down from the news site. It seems that the first witness was not as successful as the prosecution hoped.
There is a list of over 300 witnesses, and 187 of them are prosecution witnesses. Most of them are technical witnesses; the most interesting ones are those who became state witnesses in exchange for a deal.
The witnesses who fall into this category are:
- Nir Chefetz, former communications advisor to Netanyahu
- Ari Harow, former Chief of Staff to Netanyahu and an American-born Israeli political consultant
- Shlomo Filber, the Chief Executive Officer of the Ministry of Communication during Netanyahu’s tenure as Prime Minister
These witnesses seem to be the center of the prosecution’s attempt to prove the crimes of which Netanyahu is accused. According to police investigation notes, it seems all of these witnesses were involved in the talks between Netanyahu, Mozes and Milchan. Filber will also testify about talks he had with Netanyahu concerning business deals that his friends wanted to move forward.
What Will Come Next in the Trial?
Over time, the testimony of witnesses will continue. The most interesting question is whether Netanyahu will take the stand for his defense.
However, we will not know that for at least a year. It seems that this case will likely take another 18 months and then a few more months will be needed for the verdict. An appeal will take another year at least.
In other words, if there is no plea bargain, the best-case scenario is that this legal drama will conclude in three years. The timing of the final decision is crucial since Netanyahu continues to act as the chairperson of the Likud, a right-wing political party.
As far as Netanyahu is concerned, he will run in the next election and will try to position himself as the next Prime Minister. The next election is scheduled for 2024. But if Israeli’s government collapses, which is possible given the collapse of other Israeli governments in the past 20 years, there will be elections before 2024.
What Does This Trial Mean for Netanyahu?
Until the trial is over, Netanyahu’s career is in limbo. If the current government in Israel does not collapse, then Netanyahu is faced with a long wait until the 2024 election.
If there will be a conviction on even some of the charges, Netanyahu will be barred from running for office. If Netanyahu is acquitted, then he will attempt to run for Prime Minister.
Within Likud, there are forces who want to replace Netanyahu and will run candidates against him if there is an election before 2024. However, Netanyahu still has significant support within his party, and many potential candidates will hesitate to run against him.
The future of the Israeli political arena is clearly connected to the outcome of this trial. The three judges in the trial will shape the future of Israeli politics and regional politics for years to come.
What is not clear is what will happen first: a new election or a decision in this trial? That remains to be seen.