Now the showdown begins: the trial of Benjamin Netanyahu will be the most controversial in Israeli history

The Israeli prime minister’s trial will take place both in front of judges and in the court of public opinion


Israel is the only country to have sent a prime minister and a president to prison without first having a coup or a revolution.

Following Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit’s final decision to indict Benjamin Netanyahu on three counts of fraud and breach of trust and one of bribery, Israel’s prime minister is now officially facing prison-bearing charges.

But unlike Ehud Olmert and Moshe Katzav, who had already been forced to resign before charges were served against them, Mr Netanyahu has managed to hold on to power and will be fighting his case in office — at least for the time being.

The story of The State of Israel vs Benjamin Netanyahu is about much more than what appears on the charge-sheet: it’s a showdown between the political elite of right-wing and religious parties, and the legal establishment.

And Mr Netanyahu, despite now having failed twice in forming a government, intends to hold on to every shred of power in order to fend off the charges.

This is not just the first time a serving prime minister has been indicted; it is the first time that Mr Netanyahu, who since 1997 has been the target of numerous investigations, has been indicted.

In all previous cases, attorneys general reached the conclusion there was insufficient evidence to prove that he had knowingly broken the law.

It was close at least twice before, when police had recommended an indictment but the attorney general erred on the side of caution, not being prepared to risk a failed prosecution.

Mr Netanyahu thought that the way to prevent these new investigations was to place reliable people in the key junctions of law enforcement and surround himself by trusted retainers.

There are multiple ironies to these indictments.

The biggest, perhaps, is that they may never have been served if it was not for two appointments instigated by Mr Netanyahu himself.

Ronny Alsheikh, the police commissioner who gave crucial backing to the national fraud squad investigators, had been plucked personally by the prime minister from the Shin Bet intelligence service and been given the job of cleaning the police’s filthy stables.

Mr Netanyahu did not imagine that he would focus instead on his own affairs.

And Mr Mandelblit, who served for three years as a handpicked cabinet secretary before being moved to the top job at the Justice Ministry, was also someone the prime minister had relied upon.

Instead, the meticulous, agonisingly slow attorney general had meticulously and painstakingly sifted through every piece of evidence, finally settling on issuing the indictments.

But they probably would not have happened without three other men, even closer to the prime minister than Mr Mandelblit and Mr Alsheikh.

These are the three witnesses for the prosecution — former chief of staff and political fundraiser Ari Haro, former campaign manager and pollster Shlomo Filber, and former spin doctor Nir Hefetz.

Three years ago, any comprehensive list of Mr Netanyahu’s nearest and dearest, beyond his family, would have featured all three of these men.

That they all are now key witnesses for the prosecution says much about the way the prime minister has relied on his inner circle, in the expectation that no matter what they were exposed to, he would be safe.

Now it transpires that both Mr Haro and Mr Hefetz kept their own personal troves of recordings, while Mr Filber wrote everything down.

But this is far from over, of course. Mr Netanyahu will almost certainly ask the Knesset to award him immunity from prosecution.

He has 55 votes from his loyal bloc of Likud and the other right-wing and religious parties. He needs six more — or for at least eleven MKs to abstain.

If that fails, then the court case will still be far from open and shut.

The allegations against him are hazy: Were the gifts he received and the positive media coverage he sought a clear case of quid pro quo? Or were they just the regular murky trappings of power?

Mr Netanyahu has already won one battle by remaining prime minister. By law, that means his case will be heard by three judges in the Jerusalem District Court.

He has grounds to believe they will be more sympathetic towards him than the single judge in Tel Aviv specialising in white-collar crime he would be facing if he were an ordinary citizen by now. And, of course, he now has his own personal pulpit.

The case against Benjamin Netanyahu will be tried not only in the Jerusalem District Court but in the court of Israeli public opinion as well.

There he has a large constituency who see the judiciary as a leftist mafia determined to deny the people of its champion.

A social media campaign is already being waged against the legal “deep state” and will intensify, with mass demonstrations already being planned.

This will be the most controversial court case in Israeli history with implications reaching far beyond Mr Netanyahu’s personal fate.

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