JERUSALEM (AP) — Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s corruption trial has resumed after a month-long break, refocusing the spotlight on the long-serving leader’s legal woes after a wave of protests over his government’s plan to overhaul the country’s judiciary.
Netanyahu is charged with fraud, breach of trust and accepting bribes in three separate scandals involving powerful media moguls and wealthy associates. He denies wrongdoing.
Critics say that Netanyahu is driven to weaken the courts and change the judicial system as a way to open an escape route from his trial, claims he dismisses as untrue.
The corruption charges also have been at the center of a protracted political crisis that sent Israelis to the polls five times in less than four years — each vote essentially a referendum on Netanyahu’s fitness to rule. After losing power in 2021 to a coalition of opponents, Netanyahu returned as prime minister late last year, despite his legal problems. Under Israeli law, the prime minister has no obligation to step aside while on trial.
Here is a look at the ongoing trial:
WHERE DO THINGS STAND?
The trial, which began in May 2020, has featured more than 40 prosecution witnesses, including some of Netanyahu’s closest former confidants who turned against the premier. Witness accounts have shed light not only on the three cases but also revealed sensational details about Netanyahu’s character and his family’s reputation for living off the largesse of taxpayers and wealthy supporters. One former aide and a key prosecution witness called him a “control freak” when it came to his public image in the media. Another witness described expensive gifts lavished on Netanyahu and his wife, including pink champagne and cigars.
The trial was jolted by Israeli media reports that police used sophisticated phone-hacking spyware on a crucial state witness. With the trial now resuming after the Jewish Passover holiday, a top police investigator is testifying. The defense, in its cross examination, will likely try to poke holes in the way the police carried out its investigation.
WHY IS THE TRIAL TAKING SO LONG?
Netanyahu is on trial in three complex affairs — dubbed Case 1,000, Case 2,000 and Case 4,000 — in which prosecutors claim he exchanged regulatory favors with media titans for favorable press coverage and advanced the personal interests of a billionaire Hollywood producer in exchange for lavish gifts.
In building their case before the judges during the thrice-weekly hearings, prosecutors are chipping away at a list of more than 300 witnesses. At least three witnesses on the list have died as the trial has stretched on, and the witness list is expected to be trimmed somewhat.
Beyond the Israeli courts system’s reputation for being sluggish, some legal analysts say the defense has purposely tried to drag out the trial, repeatedly asking for delays, prolonging cross examinations and other tactics. A person close to the defense team denied that, blaming the prosecution for calling so many witnesses. The person spoke on condition of anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to discuss the details of the trial with the media.
WHAT HAPPENS NEXT?
In the next few weeks, the prosecution is set to call several high-profile witnesses, including the current opposition leader, Yair Lapid, the country’s ambassador to the United Nations, Gilad Erdan, as well as a former Netanyahu chief of staff-turned-state witness, Ari Harow. Those testimonies could further embarrass Netanyahu.
Once the prosecution completes its list, which is expected to happen in the next year or so, the defense will begin to call its own witnesses, possibly including Netanyahu himself. While there’s no official completion date, experts expect a ruling in about two years.
Netanyahu claims the cases against him are crumbling, but analysts say there’s no indication of that and there’s no way to know how the three-judge panel will eventually rule. If convicted, Netanyahu, Israel’s longest-serving prime minister, would be forced to step down after over 15 years in the position.
WHAT ARE THE POSSIBLE OUTCOMES?
The court could convict Netanyahu on some or all of the charges, which would trigger a sentencing process to determine his punishment. Depending on the ruling, Netanyahu and the state could each choose to appeal the ruling. Doing so would take the case to the country’s Supreme Court, further prolonging a resolution on Netanyahu’s fate.
Before the current court even reaches a decision, there is a possibility the sides will seek a plea deal, an option that has emerged in the past and again more recently, according to media reports. That would likely send Netanyahu into political exile.
The contentious plan to overhaul the judiciary also weighs heavily over Netanyahu’s future, said Amir Fuchs, a senior researcher at the Israel Democracy Institute, a Jerusalem think tank.
The plan has been paused for now, after ferocious public pressure. But if it moves ahead after all, Netanyahu could remove the current attorney general and install one amenable to throwing out the charges against him. He also could gain influence in appointing the judges who hear any future appeal. In that way, he could evade conviction or have his trial canceled outright.