This fact sheet is current as at June 4, 2020.
Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu was formally charged with bribery, fraud and breach of trust in November 2019, after a lengthy police investigation.
The first hearing began in May 2020. Under Israeli law, Netanyahu is permitted to remain prime minister while the charges are heard. Netanyahu denies all charges and accuses his enemies of conspiring against him.
On May 24, 2020, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu was brought into a Jerusalem courthouse for his first hearing in a complicated trial involving several counts of bribery, fraud and breach of trust in various contexts.
The next round of hearings over the coming months will be procedural, and the court has already granted permission for Netanyahu and other co-defendants in the case to be absent from these proceedings. Depending on the requests made by the defendants’ attorneys and the willingness of the Court to accommodate them, it may not be necessary for Netanyahu to return to the courtroom until 2021.
The indictment that launched the criminal case was the culmination of a police investigation of the Prime Minister that began in December 2016.
Israeli prosecutors have assembled a list of more than 300 witnesses, including three state witnesses who are former close Netanyahu associates. It is expected to be months before any of these witnesses are called. There are also thousands of pages of evidence to sift through, which has led to repeated requests by the defendants’ lawyers to delay the trial to give them time to review all of the evidence.
This AIJAC fact sheet is intended to inform about the basic details of the cases being tried, and answer some frequently asked questions about the process.
What are the offences that Netanyahu has been charged with and in which cases?
Netanyahu has been charged with bribery, fraud and breach of trust. His active corruption cases have been placed into three groupings, popularly referred to in Israel as “Case 1000”, “Case 2000” and Case 4000”. (Case 3000 looks at alleged corruption surrounding a government contract to buy submarines from Germany, but Netanyahu is not a suspect in that case.)
Case 1000: Gifts
In Case 1000, Netanyahu has been charged with having had a conflict of interest when, as Minister of Communications, he is alleged to have intervened in affairs related to the business interests of Hollywood producer Arnon Milchan. Over the course of 20 years, Netanyahu allegedly received expensive cigars and champagne, worth US$195,000, and jewellery for his wife Sara costing US$3,100, from Milchan, and from a friend of Milchan’s, Australian casino mogul James Packer.
Packer is not accused of any wrongdoing or of receiving anything in return for his generosity, but Milchan is facing charges. The charges cite three separate incidents in which Netanyahu allegedly assisted Milchan regarding visas, explored the extension of lucrative tax breaks and provided information that could help his business interests.
Case 2000: Arnon Mozes and Yedioth Ahronoth
Israel’s largest newspapers are Yedioth Ahronoth and Israel Hayom. Israel Hayom, a free newspaper which is owned by US billionaire Sheldon Adelson, an outspoken Netanyahu supporter, is often criticised by the political left for portraying Netanyahu in an overly positive light. Meanwhile,Yedioth, led by chairman and editor Arnon Mozes, is often criticised by the right for being unfairly critical of Netanyahu.
Case 2000 deals with recorded conversations Netanyahu had with Mozes in 2009, discussing advancing potential legislation that could harm competitor, Israel Hayom’s, business model in return for more favourable coverage of Netanyahu in Yedioth. Mozes is also a defendant in this case.
Case 4000: The Israeli telecommunications company Bezeq
Case 4000 alleges that Netanyahu directed Israel’s Communications Ministry to intervene in regulatory and other business decisions in ways that benefited Shaul Elovitch, the former owner of the Israeli telecommunications company Bezeq, to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars. In return for the help, Netanyahu is alleged to have demanded favourable media coverage in Bezeq’s online media outlet, Walla.
According to the Jerusalem Post’s law reporter Yonah Jeremy Bob,
“[Former director-general of the Communications Ministry Shlomo] Filber… told police that he acted illegally to help [former Bezeq owner Shaul] Elovitch under instructions by Netanyahu as part of a scheme in which they would make money for Elovitch at Bezeq, in exchange for Elovitch ensuring that his media outlet, Walla, would report on the prime minister in a positive manner.”
Who will try the case?
The head of the three-person panel of judges that will try Prime Minister Netanyahu is Judge Rivka Friedman-Feldman, who had a role in convicting former prime minister Ehud Olmert of corruption charge five years ago, according to a profile in the Times of Israel.
Friedman-Feldman has served on the bench at Jerusalem District Court since 2012. In 2015, Friedman-Feldman was on a panel that overturned a previous acquittal of Olmert and convicted him of fraud, aggravated fraud and breach of trust.
Friedman-Feldman’s colleague in the Netanyahu trial, Judge Oded Shaham, was on a bench that in 2010 cleared then-Kadima (now Likud) MK Tzachi Hanegbi of corruption charges when he was serving as environmental protection minister. Hanegbi was, however, found guilty of perjury and fined.
Rounding out the panel hearing the case is Judge Moshe Bar-Am, who, while experienced and respected, has handled few corruption cases.
What are the typical sentences for the crimes with which the Prime Minister is charged: bribery, fraud, and breach of trust?
According to Dr. Amir Fuchs of the Israel Democracy Institute, the maximum sentences are 10 years in prison for bribery, and three years for fraud and breach of trust, but the sentences handed down are usually much lighter.
Why can Netanyahu continue serving as prime minister even while under indictment?
Israeli court rulings from the 1990s, during the Rabin government, established that government ministers cannot serve while under indictment and must resign. Indeed, Netanyahu himself had to relinquish all other ministries from his responsibility as a result of his indictment in December.
However, Israeli law regarding a Prime Minister is different.
Israel’s laws regarding these matters are guided by the Basic Law: Government, which was originally passed in 1968 and amended in 1992 and 2001. The 2001 amendment entered into effect with the January 2003 Knesset elections. It is worth noting that Netanyahu was out of politics at the time that amendment was passed.
Following that amendment, that law now states that a prime minister will be removed from office after he/she is found by a court to be guilty of a crime involving “moral turpitude” either after 61 MKs vote to remove her/him from office, or when there is a “final verdict” in such a case – final verdict meaning after all appeals have been exhausted.
However, while the law makes it clear that a PM does not have to resign when indicted, or even convicted, pending appeals, there was some ambiguity over the question of whether a member of parliament under indictment could be asked to form a new government. It was necessary for Israel’s Supreme Court to resolve this question following the deal between Netanyahu and then opposition leader Benny Gantz on April 24 to form a national unity government in which Netanyahu would serve as PM first.
On May 7, an expanded Israeli High Court panel ruled that there was no legal obstacle to Netanyahu forming a government. As the UK’s Guardian reported:
In its decision, the 11-judge panel expressed strong opposition to both Netanyahu’s continued rule and the coalition deal but said it would not get in the way of either.
“We did not find any legal reason to prevent MK (Member of Knesset) Netanyahu from forming a government,” the court said.
“The legal conclusion we reached does not diminish the severity of the pending charges against MK Netanyahu for violations of moral integrity and the difficulty derived from the tenure of a prime minister accused of criminal activity,” it added.
Netanyahu denies charges, alleges conspiracy against him
From the start, Netanyahu has protested his innocence. He has also gone further, claiming the trial to be a form of conspiracy between Israel’s political left and the justice system and “an attempted political coup” to remove him from office.
On May 24, before attending his first hearing, Netanyahu delivered televised remarks where he claimed, “Elements in the police and State Attorney’s Office banded together with left-wing journalists… to fabricate baseless cases against me…The goal is to oust a strong right-wing prime minister and to banish the right-wing camp from leadership of the country for many years.”
Meanwhile, Israeli Opposition leader Yair Lapid claims that Netanyahu’s attacks against his prosecution are the real threat to democracy.
“There was a coup attempt yesterday and it was led by Netanyahu,” Lapid said in response to Netanyahu’s pre-trial press conference. “He tried to attack the police, the prosecution, the courts, the media. He tried to threaten his judges…He no longer has any boundaries,” he added.
Israelis are deeply divided over the trial. According to the Times of Israel, a poll conducted by the Israel Democracy Institute in November 2019 “discovered that Israelis’ political preferences tracked their view of Netanyahu’s legal troubles almost perfectly.”
One controversial element of two of the three cases against Netanyahu is that they involve allegations of “media bribery” – that is, seeking “bribes” in the form of positive media coverage in exchange for political favours, rather than more concrete quid pro quos, such as campaign contributions or other material benefits. Netanyahu’s lawyers and other defenders note that “media bribery” is a charge that has almost never been prosecuted before, either in Israel or any other democratic jurisdiction.
- February 13, 2018: The Israeli Police recommend that Prime Minister Netanyahu be charged with bribery, fraud and breach of trust in Case 1000 and Case 2000.
- December 2, 2018: The Israeli Police recommend that Netanyahu be charged with bribery, fraud and breach of trust charges in Case 4000.
- November 21, 2019: Israeli Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit, after months of reviewing the police reports, officially brings charges against Netanyahu of fraud, breach of trust, and receipt of bribes in Cases 1000, 2000, and 4000.
- May 24, 2020: Trial of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and co-defendants opens in Jerusalem District Court.
- July 19, 2020: Next hearing in the trial, a procedural hearing that will not necessitate the attendance of the defendants.
- November 17, 2021: According to signed agreements between Netanyahu and Alternate Prime Minister Benny Gantz, on this date Netanyahu will be replaced as Prime Minister by Gantz, and step down to the role of Alternate Prime Minister. This position was specifically created under the Gantz-Netanyahu coalition deal to allow Netanyahu to continue to serve in the government even if his case has not been fully resolved, since he cannot serve as a minister. However, its legality has not yet been tested in court.