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Defendant No. 1 or Next Prime Minister? Netanyahu Divides Israel


JERUSALEM — Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appeared in a Jerusalem court on Monday for the opening of the key, evidentiary phase of his corruption trial. Simultaneously, just two miles across town, representatives of his party were entreating the country’s president to task him with forming Israel’s next government.

It was a split-screen spectacle that encapsulated the confounding condition of Israel and its democracy. For many here, the extraordinary convergence of events was an illustration of a political and constitutional malaise afflicting the nation that is getting worse from year to year.

After four inconclusive elections in two years, Mr. Netanyahu, Israel’s longest serving prime minister, who is charged with bribery, fraud and breach of trust, and who denies wrongdoing, remains the most polarizing figure on the political stage. But he is also the leader of Israel’s largest party, which took the most seats in national elections last month.

With Mr. Netanyahu’s future on the line, analysts say his best bet for overcoming his legal troubles is to remain in power and gain some kind of immunity.

But with neither the pro-Netanyahu bloc of parties or the anti-Netanyahu bloc able to muster a coalition that could command a viable parliamentary majority, Israel appears stuck, unable to condone him or to move on.

Now, experts said, its democratic system is in the dock.

“Netanyahu and his supporters are not claiming his innocence but are attacking the very legitimacy of the trial and of the judicial system,” said Shlomo Avineri, professor emeritus of political science at Hebrew University.

“It is the right of the prime minister to come to court and plead not guilty,” he said. “But his defense is an attack on the legitimacy of the constitutional order.”

Israel was nearing an unprecedented constitutional crisis, he said, its depth underlined by the symbolism of the two processes unfolding in parallel.

The law gives President Reuven Rivlin a lot of leeway in whom he nominates to form a government. Mr. Rivlin, an old rival of Mr. Netanyahu, said he would act as all former presidents did and task whomever had the best chance of forming a government that would gain the confidence of the new Parliament.

The divisions were playing out noisily on Monday in the street outside the Jerusalem District Court, where dozens of protesters for and against Mr. Netanyahu had gathered at opposite sides of the courthouse.

Anti-corruption protesters held up placards listing the charges against the prime minister and chanted through megaphones. On a small stage, lawmakers from his conservative Likud party claimed that the legal process was being used to unseat Mr. Netanyahu after his opponents failed to do so through the ballot box.

“In the justice system, our choice of ballots is being assassinated,” declared Galit Distel Etebaryan, a newly elected Likud lawmaker.

The drama of the State of Israel v. Benjamin Netanyahu revolves around three cases in which Mr. Netanyahu stands accused of trading official favors in exchange for gifts from wealthy tycoons. The gifts ranged from deliveries of expensive cigars and Champagne to the less tangible one of flattering coverage in leading news outlets.

The first case being tried, known as Case 4000, is the weightiest and the only one in which he has been charged with bribery. According to the indictment, Mr. Netanyahu used his power as prime minister and communications minister at the time to aid Shaul Elovitch, a media tycoon and friend, in a business merger that profited Mr. Elovitch to the tune of tens of millions of dollars. In return, Walla, a leading Hebrew news site owned by Mr. Elovitch’s telecommunications company, provided the Netanyahu family with favorable coverage, particularly around election time.



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