TEL AVIV — Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s political and personal future hangs in the balance this week, as a pretrial hearing weighing whether to indict him on corruption charges kicked off.
Following the four-day hearing which began Wednesday, Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit will decide whether to indict Israel’s longest serving prime minister on fraud and bribery charges in three corruption cases.
Netanyahu denies any wrongdoing and has said he is the victim of a politically orchestrated “witch-hunt” by the media and the left.
The start of the hearing came after talks to form a unity government, following last month's election that ended in a stalemate, hit a further snag Tuesday when Netanyahu’s rival, Blue and White party leader Benny Gantz, called off a meeting between the two leaders slated for Wednesday.
The meeting was meant to be a last-ditch attempt by Netanyahu to cobble together the unity government between his right-wing Likud and the centrist Blue and White party. But in a statement published Tuesday, Blue and White said the preconditions for future meetings between the negotiating teams had not been met.
The faltering negotiations come after Israeli President Reuven Rivlin tapped Netanyahu to form a new government following the inconclusive Sept. 17 election that left neither Netanyahu nor Gantz with a 61-seat governing majority.
Israeli presidents are responsible for picking prime minister candidates after elections. The process is usually a formality but has recently become much more complicated due to the election deadlock.
Gantz, a former army chief of staff, has publicly resisted the idea of allying with Netanyahu, citing the corruption charges against him.
In one of the three cases due to be heard in the coming days, Netanyahu is accused of granting regulatory favors to the controlling shareholder of Israel’s telecom giant Bezeq in exchange for positive coverage on its subsidiary news site, Walla.
In a second case, Netanyahu and his family are accused of receiving lavish presents from supporters in return for passing legislation that ensures Israelis who come back to live in Israel from abroad are exempt from paying taxes for 10 years.
The third case alleges that Netanyahu offered advantageous legislation to a major newspaper in return for favorable coverage.
Gantz has previously said his issue lies with governing alongside Netanyahu personally and not the Likud party. But Netanyahu has made it clear that he’s not willing to step aside so the Likud party can form a unity government.
In a video message posted on Twitter on Sunday, Netanyahu said the only option was for him to serve first as prime minister before handing the reins to Gantz within a unity government.
“Regrettably, Likud is sticking to its precondition of Netanyahu first," Blue and White said in a statement released the same day.
The party accused Likud of acting "with the sole aim of generating support in preparation for dragging Israel into another round of elections at the behest of Netanyahu."
If the talks fail, Netanyahu will likely have to hand his mandate to form Israel’s next government to a rival — probably Gantz. If he doesn’t succeed, Rivlin can select another legislator or set in motion what would be the third election in under a year.
Netanyahu is not expected to appear during the four-day hearing that is scheduled for Wednesday, Thursday, Sunday and Monday.
If he is indicted, it could take months for his trial to begin and he could seek a plea bargain similar to what his wife, Sara, did earlier this year when she admitted criminal wrongdoing over the misuse of state funds in a deal that saw her serve no jail time.
However one of Netanyahu's lawyers, Amit Hadad, ruled out the possibility of a plea bargain Wednesday.
“We believe in the hearing and believe afterwards all three cases will be closed,” he said before entering the hearing.
And even if Netanyahu is indicted whilst still prime minister, Israeli law does not require him to resign unless he is convicted.
He had previously hoped that if he served a fifth term as prime minister, he would be able to pass legislation that would grant him immunity from prosecution. It is unclear whether enough lawmakers would now back the move.
Saphora Smith reported from London and Paul Goldman reported from Tel Aviv.