ANALYSIS: As corruption trial starts, what next for Netanyahu’s election hopes?

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ANALYSIS: As corruption trial starts, what next for Netanyahu’s election hopes?

Nathan Jeffay looks at the dramatic exit of Israel's Prime Minister from Monday's hearing, and how he may use the spotlight to his advantage

Nathan Jeffay
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, center, wearing a face mask in line with public health restrictions due to the coronavirus pandemic, enters the court room with his lawyer as his corruption trial opens at the Jerusalem District Court
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, center, wearing a face mask in line with public health restrictions due to the coronavirus pandemic, enters the court room with his lawyer as his corruption trial opens at the Jerusalem District Court

The street of the Jerusalem courthouse was thronged with protesters as Israel’s Prime Minister appeared in his corruption trial on Monday. He is battling for an acquittal from the judge — but more immediately, for the country to trust and reelect him. 

Benjamin Netanyahu tried to project authority, as much as possible, by quitting the courtroom part-way through the hearing, sending out a message that far more important things need his attention. “Thank you very much,” he said before leaving, with permission. 

His only notable contribution to the hearing was to formally deny the charges against him, reflecting his long-held position that he has done nothing wrong. 

Even for Netanyahu, the resilient leader who is famous for turning lemons in to lemonade, it’s hard to put on a brave face as a trial against him gathers pace amid another election campaign. But surprisingly, it doesn’t look set to dampen his standing in the polls.

“Whatever damage this trial will do to him politically has already been done,” said criminal and constitutional law expert Dr. Amir Fuchs. “It doesn’t look like  there will be more damage now.”

Fuchs, senior researcher at the Israel Democracy Institute, has been closely monitoring the three cases against Netanyahu, and their political fallout, since the first of the investigations started in December 2016. 

He gave this interview shortly after Netanyahu’s brief court appearance on Monday, which was his second of the trial. 

The situation is confusing, especially for people following from abroad. What will happen now? 

A file now needs to be delivered to enable the questioning of witnesses, which will take 10 days, and there will then be a few weeks to prepare for the questioning. This means it could happen a little before the election, or just afterwards. I wouldn’t be surprised if the evidence starts after the election, and the reason wouldn’t be politics, but just the fact that trials run slowly.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s convoy arrives to Jerusalem district court In Jerusalem, Sunday, May 24, 2020. (AP Photo/Sebastian Scheiner)

Won’t images of Netanyahu going to court, or possibly even evidence being brought to light, negatively impact his election campaign?

No. It’s like the stock-market, when everyone knows something will happen and therefore the effect isn’t felt on the markets when it does. I don’t think people will change their minds on whether or not they would vote for Netanyahu because we’re at a certain stage in the trial. Yes, maybe some people changed their mind about him based on the legal cases a year or two ago, but not now. 

Have we already seen this dynamic in action? 

Yes. We were surprised that nothing happened regarding Netanyahu’s popularity when the indictment was issued and other steps were taken. Maybe something would happen to public opinion if he is convicted, but this won’t be any time soon. The fact this trial is moving along as we prepare for an election won’t change anything politically.

Despite this, there are strong suggestions that the story of the trial and the story of the election are closely tied. Can you explain this purported link?

The trial won’t change the outcome of the election, but politics is very, very, relevant for the future of the trial. If Netanyahu has 61 out of 120 Knesset members who support him, he could change immunity rules, for example with a retroactive law saying a Prime Minister can’t go to trial, or a change to the way that Israel’s attorney general is appointed, and then select someone for the job who would stop the trial. I believe that there would be enough public opposition that this wouldn’t happen, but it seems to be the intention. Netanyahu had a very comfortable government, and this is the only explanation for him going to elections again.

Israeli President Reuven Rivlin (R) hands a letter of appointment for entrusted with forming the next government to Israeli Prime Minister and Chairman of the Likud Party Benjamin Netanyahu (L) at the President’s residence in Jerusalem, Israel, 25 September 2019. Media reports state, that negotiations between the Likud party headed by Benjamin Netanyahu that won 32 seats and the Blue and White party of Benny Gantz that won 33 seats for forming unity government did not succeed. Photo by: JINIPIX

If Netanyahu did have support for measures that could give him immunity post-election, could this happen before a verdict in the trial?

The election is in March; the verdict in the trial will be at least a year from now. So there is certainly enough time. Israel doesn’t have a constitution, but it has Basic Laws, the closest alternative. These can be amended in one day, so changes that could confer immunity could be very quick.

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