Benjamin Netanyahu lost his long battle to remain Israel’s top political leader this weekend, leaving office after a run of 12 years as prime minister.
Now he faces a legal battle against the graft charges that came to dominate his final years in office.
Although Netanyahu became Israel’s longest-serving prime minister — 15 years in total — his alleged crimes carry potentially serious repercussions, including the possibility of years in prison.
They may also hamper any plans for a political comeback by Netanyahu, who has pledged to fight both the charges and his political opponents.
What were the allegations against Netanyahu?
While lurid allegations had long swirled around Netanyahu, it wasn’t until Feb. 28, 2019, that Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit recommended that the prime minister be indicted on charges of fraud, bribery and breach of trust. Netanyahu was indicted later that year.
The charges became known in Israel by their case numbers: 1000, 2000 and 4000.
- Case 1000 involved allegations that the Netanyahu family received illegal gifts, including pink champagne, jewelry, Cuban cigars and even tickets to a Mariah Carey concert, in exchange for political favors for billionaire backers. The gifts, alleged to have totaled around $260,000, came from Arnon Milchan, a Hollywood producer who is also an Israeli citizen, and Australian businessman James Packer, according to the indictment.
- In Case 2000, Netanyahu was accused of working with Arnon Mozes, owner of Israel’s best-selling daily newspaper, Yedioth Ahronoth, to limit the circulation of a rival newspaper in exchange for more positive coverage. According to prosecutors, Mozes made the offer ahead of the 2014 election; although the prime minister did not formally accept it, he benefited by not refusing it and not reporting it, the indictment states.
- The most serious allegations are contained in Case 4000, which alleges that between 2012 and 2017, Netanyahu had a “quid pro quo” arrangement with a businessman who owned a popular news website named Walla. The tycoon, Shaul Elovitch, made about $500 million from the arrangement, an indictment says.
Netanyahu has denied all the allegations.
Netanyahu has been charged with fraud and breach of trust for Case 1000 and Case 2000, while Case 4000 carries the additional charge of bribery.
Fraud and breach of trust charges can carry three years in prison, while bribery can be punished with 10 years and/or a fine.
What impact did the indictment have on Netanyahu?
Israel’s legal system does not require a prime minister to step down unless found guilty. But the legal battle has cast a cloud over Netanyahu, who has dubbed it a politically motivated “witch hunt.”
Netanyahu has railed against the Attorney General and judges who oversaw his cases — although he had appointed many of them himself — and his supporters targeted those in the legal profession who were seen as opposing him.
More than once, Netanyahu’s allies tried to force through legislation that would have shielded him from the charges he faces. One proposed immunity law would have granted any lawmaker immunity from prosecution unless a Knesset committee voted to rescind that protection.
But Netanyahu’s rivals seized on the allegations of corruption, with protesters dubbing him a “crime minister.” Israel struggled through a series of political crises since 2019, holding four elections within two years, and Netanyahu’s Likud party was unable to form a stable government.
What happens now?
The court cases against Netanyahu are still at an early stage; the prosecution is just beginning to present its evidence after delays due to the coronavirus pandemic. Few experts predict a speedy resolution, and even after the court reaches its conclusions, the appeals process could add years to the case.
There is precedent for the criminal conviction of a former Israeli prime minister: Ehud Olmert, who served as prime minister from 2006 to 2009 and was Netanyahu’s direct predecessor, was found guilty of accepting bribes and obstruction of justice after leaving office.
Olmert, who had resigned after police recommended charges against him, eventually served two-thirds of a 27-month sentence. He was released early by a parole board, which praised his rehabilitation.
Having lost top political office in Israel, Netanyahu will face a new reality in court.
The chances of working out some kind of legal immunity have dimmed, while his expensive legal team may prove to be harder to retain as the trial continues.
He may also have to return to attending the trial following an exemption to allow him to fulfill his duties as prime minister.
Now he is the leader of the Israeli opposition, and, like all members of the Knesset, he will be under no obligation to resign until found guilty and all avenues of appeal have been exhausted.