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Q&A with Prof. Menachem Hofnung on the trial of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu

Photo for Q&A with Prof. Menachem Hofnung

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, November 2020. (Credit: PM Office/Facebook)

Professor Menachem Hofnung discusses the resumed corruption trial of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Hofnung teaches in the Department of Political Science at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and is a visiting professor at the UCLA Y&S Nazarian Center for Israel Studies.

UCLA Y&S Nazarian Center for Israel Studies, February 8, 2021 – Professor Menachem Hofnung answered questions about the corruption trial of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The country’s longest-serving prime minister appeared in court on February 8 and pleaded not guilty. The case comes as Israelis prepare to cast ballots March 23 in the country’s fourth national election in two years.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is facing legal woes with a trial about to start. What are the charges?

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is facing three main charges, and there's also another affair in which Netanyahu is not indicted yet, but many individuals in his inner circles are. So, let's start with the three:

• In Israel, it's known as Case 1000. It accuses Netanyahu of taking all kinds of gifts (champagne and cigars worth about $200,000) as a prime minister from Israeli businessman Arnon Milchan, a movie producer in Hollywood. In return, Netanyahu allegedly used his role as a prime minister to give favors to Mr. Milchan.

• The second is Case 2000, in which Netanyahu has met several times with Arnon Mozes, publisher of the second-largest daily newspaper in Israel, Yedioth Ahronoth. And the deal that was offered to Netanyahu was this: if he will close the biggest competing newspaper, Israel Hayom, which is funded by his late friend Sheldon Adelson and distributed at no charge all over the country, then the publisher of Yedioth Ahronoth will use his influence (i.e., positive news coverage) to make sure that Netanyahu is prime minister forever. Netanyahu does not deny the allegations, but his defense is, "I heard it. And I didn't mean to do anything." But at the time, he enjoyed very favorable news coverage during the elections, while knowing all the time what Mozes expected to receive in return.

• And the third is Case 4000, involving allegations of bribery from another Israeli billionaire, Shaul Elovitch, who runs a big Internet news site. Netanyahu is accused of receiving very favorable coverage in exchange for letting that billionaire go ahead with deals that needed the government's permission – deals worth about $300 million to Mr. Elovitch.

These are the three cases, but there's also the submarine scandal. There are allegations that Netanyahu used his influence to push for Israel to purchase four submarines and large ships against the advice of the IDF and without the knowledge of the minister of Defense. Part of the allegation is that one person making a lot of profit from all those deals is an American businessman and cousin of Netanyahu, Nathan Milikowsky. Mr. Milikowsky has shares in a company that is now part of ThyssenKrupp corporation, the maker of the submarines. Netanyahu hasn't been indicted yet in this scandal, but there is a public outcry that he should be indicted.
 
How is the trial likely to proceed?

This is a big question because several court meetings were delayed for all kinds of excuses – sometimes because the judges saw that they couldn't hold a court meeting due to the tightened lockdown restrictions during the pandemic. The current closure is about to end Sunday morning (February 7), or 24 hours before the court meeting. Netanyahu was pushing for an extension of the closure, but ministers of the Blue and White party (partners of Netanyahu in the coalition, although rivals in the upcoming elections) refused to support the extension. Meanwhile, the lawyers for Netanyahu called for delays too, which is strange. Because on the one hand, Netanyahu claims that he is innocent. On the other hand, he is not eager to go ahead to trial and prove his innocence. The next court meeting is scheduled for Monday, February 8, and we will see if that takes place.
 
Is this type of case against an Israeli leader unprecedented in the country's history? 

We had a few cases in which charges were brought against a sitting prime minister. And in those two cases, they preferred to retire before the trial. In the first case with Yitzhak Rabin, his wife, Leah, took all the blame herself, and therefore she stood trial, while Rabin suspended himself nevertheless from the position of prime minister, until the elections of 1977, which his party, Labor, lost. In the case of Ehud Olmert, the trial started with a pretrial testimony from an American businessman, Morris Talansky. His testimony killed Olmert's political career. After that, Olmert suspended himself but did not step down. He was convicted and went to jail. There was also a case involving an Israeli president, Moshe Katsav, charged with rape. He was forced to resign and spent a few years in jail.
 
What happens if Netanyahu is found guilty? Is there an appeal process?

Yes, it is complicated. In the Jerusalem District Court, the judges do have to decide if Benjamin Netanyahu is guilty with disgrace. “Disgrace” means that the court finds the conviction carries “moral turpitude” that justifies restricting a person’s competence to hold public office. If Netanyahu is guilty without disgrace, then he can stay as the prime minister. But if he is guilty with disgrace, then the case can go to the Knesset (Israel's parliament), and the Knesset can decide that he is unfit to serve as a prime minister. In some ways, it resembles the American method of impeachment. But the appeal goes on. If the verdict becomes final in the Israeli Supreme Court (or if there’s no appeal at all), and he is guilty with disgrace, then the Knesset has nothing to say. He is out on that day. And he is very likely to face a jail term. If the judges find him guilty but do not want him to face a jail term, they will say there is no disgrace.

Note: Above are portions of an interview originally conducted on February 3, 2021. Answers have been edited for length and clarity.