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Witnesses testify in Netanyahu corruption trial

Marcel Nadim Aburakia
April 5, 2021

Prosecutors have laid out their case in a wide-ranging corruption trial against Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who accused them of persecuting him in an attempt to undermine the will of the voters.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu arrives for a hearing in his corruption trial on February 8, 2021
In this picture from February 8, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu arrives in court for a hearing in his corruption trialImage: Reuben Castro/REUTERS

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu accused public prosecutors of staging a "coup attempt" against him in a speech given after his corruption trial resumed on Monday.

The 71-year-old again said that a "witch hunt" was underway against him.

The trial in Jerusalem began hearing witness testimony in the evidentiary phase of the corruption trial against him.

Netanyahu's remarks also came the same day as talks began on forming Israel's next government, following the latest inconclusive general election in late March.

What's happening in court?

All eyes were on lead prosecutor Liat Ben-Ari, who delivered a much-anticipated opening statement at the Jerusalem District Court.

She said Netanyahu "abused his power to give illegal benefits in coordination with central media outlets to further his personal interests," according to the Jerusalem Post.

Following her statement, the first witnesses testified, including Ilan Yeshua — the former CEO of the news site Walla and a key witness in the first case of three cases to be heard.

Yeshua said he had received instructions from Netanyahu's allies to post articles favorable to the prime minister and information that smeared his rivals.

"It was clear that we were a website that did what the prime minister's office asked us," Yeshua told the court.

Netanyahu's trial has been delayed several times because of coronavirus-related restrictions and last month's general election.

What is Benjamin Netanyahu accused of?

Netanyahu is charged with accepting bribes, fraud and breach of trust in three cases. 

  • In the first, he is accused of receiving gifts from wealthy friends in exchange for helping with business and personal affairs, including Hollywood film producer Arnon Milchan and Australian billionaire James Packer.
  • In the second, he is accused of trying to orchestrate positive coverage in a major Israeli paper in exchange for curbing distribution of a free pro-Netanyahu tabloid.
  • In the third, which was the focus of Monday's hearing, Netanyahu is accused of promoting regulatory decisions favorable to the controlling shareholder in the Bezeq telecom giant, Shaul Elovitch, in exchange for positive coverage on Walla news site.

Netanyahu has denied all charges against him, branding them a "witch-hunt" by his political opponents, media and law enforcement. 

What happens next? 

Netanyahu is expected to remain in his post for the duration of the trial, as there is currently no legal barrier to him staying in office as prime minister.

Even if convicted, Netanyahu would not be required to step down until the appeals process is exhausted — which could take years.

While the prosecution called the cases "one of the gravest in Israel's history," a similar case could be a blueprint for the future. Ehud Olmert, former Israeli prime minister, stepped down as his party's leader when he was under investigation for corruption in 2008. However, he technically remained in office until the following elections — the same that brought Netanyahu to power.

Olmert was later convicted of bribery, fraud, obstruction of justice and breach of trust and served 16 months of a 27-month prison sentence.