The long and winding road of Benjamin Netanyahu’s legal woes
Plain denial appears to be the overarching strategy from the former Israeli leader’s legal team over a series of corruption cases against him.
Legal experts say Benjamin Netanyahu’s fight against corruption-related charges could take years to conclude after his recent removal as Israel’s longest-serving leader, with court delays likely pushing full-swing witness testimony back until October.
The trial has been suspended since June 16 as the prosecution and defence teams haggle over how to handle new evidence that recently came to light.
Netanyahu stands accused of conducting illegal business with companies and accepting luxury gifts from business friends in exchange for political favours. He is also accused of having promoted media companies in return for positive reporting.
The former leader has denied all accusations against him, saying the charges are a political witch hunt spearheaded by opponents.
Postponing the court case is nothing new.
While still in office, the man known as “Bibi” actively delayed his trial, attempted to limit the courts’ powers, and even tried to change the immunity law in his favour, Mazen Masri, senior lecturer in law at The City Law School, told Al Jazeera.
Now as the Knesset’s opposition leader, Netanyahu could file another request for immunity, but that would be relatively futile as he does not have the backing from lawmakers, Masri said.
“Netanyahu stated that he reserves the right to file a new request for immunity, but it seems that his chances to do so are not good. There are questions on whether he can file a second request. And even if he can, the numbers [in the Knesset] are still more or less the same,” he said.
So far, the trial has proceeded in a way characteristic of situations involving highly sophisticated and powerful defendants supported by excellent – and expensive – legal advice, said Hadar Aviram, professor of law at the University of California.
The charges against Netanyahu relate to three cases, and so far his defence team has been attempting to find holes in the prosecution’s claims.
“The testimony is fairly strong but the defence exploits every weakness of each of the cases, relying on high-quality technology expert testimony,” Aviram told Al Jazeera.
All three cases Netanyahu has been charged with display different degrees of magnitude, yet they seem to involve a reoccurring theme.
“Case 1000” involves a relationship between Netanyahu and businessmen Arnon Milchen and James Packer, and the accusation is that Netanyahu received expensive gifts from them in return for advancing Milchen’s business interests.
“In many ways, Case 1000 is the simplest and strongest of the lot,” said Aviram.
Milchen’s employee Hadas Klein has testified the gifts were not merely an exchange between friends but were accompanied by demands from Netanyahu, who would allegedly contact Milchen to say that “the pink champagne and cigars have run out” and the stock needed to be replenished.
Once, when Milchen bought a necklace for his wife, Sara Netanyahu, he received a message pointing out a matching bracelet was missing from the gift delivery.
“The defence will argue that considering the vast wealth of the parties, these lavish gifts were not outside the ambit of the friendship. Notably, Milchen and Packer were not prosecuted, and Packer, who is now very ill and abroad, will not testify at the trial,” Aviram said.
Case 2000 centres around a deal between Netanyahu and co-defendant Arnon “Noni” Mozes, owner of the national newspaper Yediot Aharonot. It is alleged that Mozes would ensure flattering coverage of Netanyahu in the newspaper in exchange for legislation limiting the distribution of its competitor – the Adelson-funded publication Israel HaYom.
The conversation between Netanyahu and Mozes was recorded by prosecution witness Ari Harow, Netanyahu’s chief of staff, at Netanyahu’s request, which, legally, is a double-edged sword for the prosecution, Aviram said.
“Case 2000 is more tentative. The recording is damning, but the very fact that it was made could be an argument for the defence that neither Netanyahu nor Mozes saw anything wrong with the conversation,” said Aviram.
Beyond that was a complicated interpretive question: to what extent was this conversation a deviation from the usually murky give-and-take relationships between journalists and politicians, said Aviram.
Case 4000 involves a relationship between Netanyahu and Shaul Elovitch, owner of news site Walla and controlling stakeholder in the Bezeq communications group. As with Case 2000, this one involves pressure by Elovitch on journalists to provide flattering coverage of Netanyahu in return for legislation favourable to the Bezeq group.
The central prosecution witness is journalist Ilan Yeshua, who testified that he was constantly pushed, warned, and harangued by Elovitch to portray the Netanyahu family in a flattering light.
On cross-examination, however, the defence elicited that Yeshua was involved with various politicians in this manner, though he did specify that the scope and intensity of the pressure to favourably cover Netanyahu was stronger by orders of magnitude.
All of the above leads Aviram to believe that Case 4000 was “the most severe and the one that, at least until recently, looked bleakest for Netanyahu”.
The defence has succeeded in halting cross-examination to search Yeshua’s phone by an expert witness to reveal material pertaining to more politicians. However, this initiative might backfire and reveal more damning information against Netanyahu, Aviram said.
Overall, there already appears to be an overarching strategy from Netanyahu’s legal team. The most prominent is plain denial.
“So far, Netanyahu’s consistent response to the cases against him is ‘nothing will happen because nothing did happen,’ and the defence has followed up with a blanket denial of all the accusations,” said Aviram.
“The argument will be that none of the occurrences described in the three cases is excessive in a climate in which relationships between journalists flourish and wealthy old friends shower each other with gifts.”
However, the strategy is by no means a bulletproof tactic for Netanyahu. Two of Netanyahu’s allies are unavailable to testify on his behalf: Sheldon Adelson is dead and Packer is ill and abroad.
“It will weaken the defence’s case,” said Aviram.
While hundreds of witnesses are expected to testify during the trial, one should not expect Netanyahu to take the stand himself, as the risk outweighs any potential benefit, Aviram said.
“It is unlikely that Netanyahu will testify at trial. He cooperated with the police investigation and, in his interrogation, flat-out denied all the allegations against him – and he has nothing to gain from being exposed to questioning again.”
It will take significant time until a verdict is reached, given Netanyahu’s status and resources.
“We are looking at years, if not decades, of appeals, which will delay if not thwart any actual incarceration,” Aviram concluded.