Legal woes facing Netanyahu as opposition unseats him

Legal woes facing Netanyahu as opposition unseats him
4 min read
Former Prime Minister Netanyahu would only be obliged to resign from politics if he is convicted and has exhausted all avenues of appeal.
Netanyahu is the first Israeli prime minister to be indicted while in office [Getty]

Israel's longtime premier Benjamin Netanyahu has lost power after parliament approved a coalition government opposed to him, raising questions about the next steps in his ongoing corruption trial.

Here's an outline of the case against the first Israeli prime minister to have been indicted in office and what might lie in store:

What are the charges?

Netanyahu, 71, was formally charged in 2019 over allegations he accepted improper gifts and sought to trade regulatory favours with media moguls in exchange for positive coverage.

He is also accused of accepting cigars, champagne and jewellery worth 700,000 shekels (180,000 euros) from wealthy personalities in exchange for favours.

Netanyahu says there is no problem with receiving gifts from friends, and denies having acted inappropriately in return.

He has lambasted the charges as part of a witch-hunt to drive him out of office.

The trial began in May 2020, with hearings repeatedly postponed in the face of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Fighting on?

As head of the largest faction that is not part of the new governing coalition, Netanyahu automatically became leader of the opposition on Sunday.

He has made clear he is not about to quit politics.

"I'll lead you in a daily battle against this bad leftwing government until we take it down," he said ahead of the confidence vote approving the government formed by centrist Yair Lapid and headed by hardliner and former Netanyahu protege Naftali Bennett.

For Yohanan Plesner, head of the Israel Democracy Institute, Netanyahu's motivation in leading the opposition was "first and foremost connected to the continuation of his criminal legal process".

With the trial continuing on a near-daily basis at Jerusalem's district court, "Netanyahu wants to continue to appear as a defendant who has much political power", Plesner said.

"He believes that this provides him leverage vis-a-vis both the judges and the attorney general."

Immunity?

Under Israeli law, a sitting prime minister does not have automatic immunity from prosecution - but he or she is not obliged to resign when charged, only when convicted and after all avenues of appeal have been exhausted.

The same principle applies to any member of parliament, including opposition heads, according to Aviad Hacohen, a professor of constitutional law and president of the Academic College of Law and Science in central Israel.

In power from 1996 to 1999 and then again since 2009, Netanyahu acquired a reputation as a master political operator.

He repeatedly sought to evade prosecution, pushing legislation to curb the power of courts and amend immunity law in his favour.

He has vied to reform Israel's basic laws, a de-facto constitution.

But his removal from power means he has lost the ability to force changes to those basic laws.

More immediately, however, Netanyahu's change of status could affect his exemptions from attending his trial's near-daily court sessions.

Netanyahu requested and received permission from the court to skip many proceedings, last appearing in court on April 5.

But as head of the opposition, "his responsibilities and commitments are less intensive than as prime minister, even if it's an important position", Hacohen said.

"It is certainly possible that the court will instruct him to attend part, if not all of the sessions," he said.

Plea bargain? 

As is often the case in Israeli legal cases, Netanyahu could offer a plea bargain, exchanging an admission of guilt for an acquittal on more serious charges or a lighter sentence.

Hacohen told AFP that while in theory everyone is equal before the law, "in practice... there are obviously ramifications" of a prime minister standing trial, including the leverage Netanyahu could have had as premier to reach a plea bargain, in the event that he pursues that legal avenue.

At the same time, Netanyahu's ousting from the premiership could also have a "subconscious effect, even though it shouldn't", Hacohen said. The prosecution might now be more inclined to cut a deal with the former premier, the mindset being "he has already suffered enough".

Pardon?

Netanyahu faces a maximum of 10 years in prison for corruption, and three years for fraud and breach of trust.

The trial could drag on for years.

As an ultimate - but unlikely - recourse, he could seek a presidential pardon during his trial.

But the viability of that avenue may have been further stymied by parliament electing Isaac Herzog as president early this month.

Herzog is a scion of one of Israel's most prestigious families who in 2015 lodged a bid to oust Netanyahu. He will replace outgoing President Reuven Rivlin in the largely ceremonial role next month.