Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu‘s defence team on Wednesday began presenting its arguments against a series of corruption charges that may lead to his indictment, amid a period of political uncertainty.
The pre-trial hearings, which will take place over four consecutive days, will see Netanyahu’s lawyers argue before the country’s Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit that he should not press charges for alleged bribery, fraud and breach of trust – or to reduce them.
Netanyahu, who has denied any criminal wrongdoing, is currently fighting for political survival after failing to achieve a clear win in two parliamentary elections held in April and September this year.
The 69-year-old leader’s attempts to form a unity government suffered a setback after his main rival, Benny Gantz, refused to serve in a cabinet led by a leader who faces indictment.
Last week, Israeli President Reuven Rivlin asked Netanyahu, the leader of the right-wing Likud party, to form a new government in the wake of last month’s deadlocked election.
Netanyahu, Israel’s longest-serving prime minister, faces possible arrest if he is not able to become prime minister.
What are the charges?
The hearings come nearly three years after the cases were initially opened.
In February, Mandelblit announced that he intended to file criminal charges against Netanyahu in investigations listed as Cases 4000, 1000, and 2000.
Netanyahu could face fraud and breach of trust charges in all three cases, as well as bribery charges in Case 4000.
The first two days of the hearings on October 2-3 will involve Case 4000 – which alleges that Netanyahu took steps to benefit Israel’s largest telecommunications company, Bezeq Telecom Israel, in return for favourable coverage on a news site called Walla that was controlled by the company’s former chairman.
The latter two days of the hearings – October 6-7 – will involve Cases 2000 and 1000.
Case 1000 alleges that Netanyahu and his wife wrongfully received gifts from Arnon Milchan, a Hollywood producer and Israeli citizen, as well as from Australian billionaire James Packer, in return for political favours.
The gifts included champagne and cigars, according to reports.
In Case 2000, Netanyahu is suspected to have struck a deal with the owner of Israel’s daily newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth to receive favourable coverage in return for legislation that would slow the growth of competing newspaper Israel Hayom.
Will Netanyahu be charged?
The attorney general is expected to make a decision by the end of December on whether to indict Netanyahu.
If he is indicted, it could take months before his trial begins and Netanyahu could ask for a plea deal instead.
If he were to become prime minister again, Netanyahu would be under no legal obligation to resign from office without an ultimate conviction. Under Israeli law, he could serve as long as legal proceedings and appeals are ongoing.
Netanyahu’s supporters in the legislature have said they would support granting him parliamentary immunity from prosecution, but it is unclear whether enough legislatures would back such a move.
However, if convicted in a trial, Netanyahu could face up to 10 years in prison and/or a fine for bribery charges alone, while fraud and breach of trust carry a prison sentence of up to three years.