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Netanyahu celebrates as corruption case falters

Opposition head Benjamin Netanyahu scored political points after the judges in his trial rejected the prosecution's request to amend the charges against him.
Amir Levy/Getty Images

The judges in the trial of former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu rejected the prosecution’s request to amend his indictment.

Since the beginning of the trial, the prosecution’s case against the former prime minister has seemed weak. The prosecutors were counting on their most important witness, former director of the Ministry of Communications and Netanyahu confidant Shlomo Filber, incriminating him.

State witnesses are notoriously problematic, as are inevitably concerning with protecting themselves. Filber’s cross-examination by Netanyahu’s lawyers over the last few weeks revealed the apparent carelessness with which the prosecution indicted a serving prime minister.

During questioning by the defense, it became apparent that the meeting at which Netanyahu allegedly ordered Filber to provide benefits to former media tycoon Shaul Elovitch could not have taken place on its alleged date. It was a major embarrassment for the prosecution, which insisted that the discrepancy was insignificant. But to change the charges to involve a meeting on an unknown date would require amending the original indictment, but the judges ruled that they could not agree to amend such a significant detail. For the record, Netanyahu continues to argue that no such meeting ever took place.

The judges also found that the prosecution had known of the problematic date for some time but did not share that information.

Netanyahu could still be convicted of bribery, but the chances of that happening have declined significantly. And while he still faces other charges of violating the public trust, the bribery case was the most severe charge.

This was not the first problem with the case, but it is certainly the most severe. 

The Netanyahu trial began two years ago, in May 2020, when Israel in a state of political crisis. At the time, Netanyahu was running for prime minister under a cloud of bribery charges that he claimed caused him to lose the election. Now that it looks like the prosecution may have rushed to charge him without doing its due diligence, and its struggle to make its case could revive the political game in his favor.

In Jerusalem’s district court this week, Netanyahu was given yet another opportunity to avert his political demise and may even be able to return to the prime minister’s office. Any challenges he faced from within the Likud, any rivals in the party who claimed that the trial killed his political career were silenced abruptly on Tuesday morning. The ruling actually increased Netanyahu’s popularity among Likud voters who think that he was the victim of a great injustice.

Over the last few days, Likud activists have been arriving in the Knesset en masse to see Netanyahu up close. And even as the party finds another wind, fresh challenges are facing the current coalition.

Even before the recent drama unfolded, polls showed that the Likud under Netanyahu is the most popular party in the country by a strong margin. If elections were held today, the Likud would win around 35 seats, significantly more than the 17-18 seats predicted for the second-largest party, Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid. As for current Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, his Yamina party is fighting to survive, with an estimated five seats if elections were held now.

There is almost no likelihood of Netanyahu taking a plea deal now that his legal situation seems to be improving and he faces a likely new election.

The legal upset will have an impact on politics beyond the Likud. With the bribery case so thoroughly weakened, people are starting to ask about how the attorney general’s office treated the prime minister while he was still in office. For years, Netanyahu has argued that that he was the victim of a campaign to remove him from power. The argument may be conspiratorial, but the public's trust in the legal system has been eroded.

No one can say when Israel will hold its next election. Nevertheless, they could very well take place before this government finishes its term, possibly by late 2022 or early 2023. Netanyahu’s trial will continue in Jerusalem’s district court over the coming months and figure prominently in Netanyahu’s campaign as well as the wider Likud’s.

Since Filber's cross-examination began, Netanyahu has seemed to be in better spirits, walking past the reporters covering the trial with his head high.

The trial could still last years, but Netanyahu has reason to be hopeful. He survived a tough year in the opposition without being removed by his party. Perhaps more importantly, he managed to maintain his own coalition of opposition parties. The Likud, ultra-Orthodox and far-right parties are all united under his leadership.

Analysts estimate that Netanyahu will lead the right and the Likud in the next election against a coalition of parties running on an anti-Netanyahu platform, a message that is much weaker than it was just a year ago. The current coalition that had big hopes to end the political crisis, restore stability and heal the deep rifts in the country, now seems to be heading toward its demise.

The shakiness of the alliance of right-wing and Arab parties has been made clear in in the past few weeks' bills, which received the support of only part of the coalition and were sometimes passed with assistance from the opposition. On May 30, Netanyahu told the leaders of the opposition that from now on, they will oppose any proposed legislation by the coalition for the sole purpose of bringing the government down.

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