Israeli prosecutors accused Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of treating favours as “currency” at the opening of a corruption trial which, along with an inconclusive election, has clouded his prospects of remaining in office.
Wearing a black mask and dark suit, Netanyahu was seated in the Jerusalem District Court following an order from judges to appear in court to face charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust.
Netanyahu, who denies all wrongdoing in the three cases against him, conferred quietly with lawyers as his supporters and critics held raucous demonstrations outside. He left before the first witness was called to testify.
Israel’s longest-serving prime minister misused “the great governmental power entrusted to him, among other things, to demand and derive improper benefits from owners of key media in Israel in order to advance his personal affairs – including when he faced his desire to be re-elected”, prosecutor Liat Ben Ari said during opening arguments.
He “made illegitimate use of the great governmental power entrusted to him”, Ben Ari added.
“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.”
The first case involves Netanyahu allegedly receiving gifts worth hundreds of thousands of dollars from wealthy friends, including Hollywood film producer Arnon Milchan and Australian billionaire James Packer. In the second case, Netanyahu is accused of trying to orchestrate positive coverage in a main Israeli newspaper in exchange for curbing distribution of a free pro-Netanyahu tabloid.
The third, dubbed Case 4000, which will be the focus of Monday’s first witness testimony, alleges that Netanyahu backed legislation worth hundreds of millions of dollars to the owner of Israeli telecom giant Bezeq in return for positive coverage on its news site Walla.
Monday’s hearing comes as Israel’s president meets parliamentarians to ask whom they support to form the next government following last month’s election.
It failed to end the long period of political stalemate that has led to four elections in two years, leaving both Netanyahu’s right-wing bloc and the parties opposed to him remaining in power short of a majority.
Once President Reuven Rivlin has consulted all the parties, he will nominate whoever he thinks has the best chance of forming a governing coalition.
Netanyahu’s rivals fear that if he remains prime minister he will push through legislation that would grant him immunity from prosecution while in office. He rejects such a claim.