Legal woes facing Netanyahu as opposition readies to unseat him

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu leaves court on April 5 after his most recent appearance in his ongoing corruption trial which has seen repeated adjournments in the face of the Covid pandemic
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu leaves court on April 5 after his most recent appearance in his ongoing corruption trial which has seen repeated adjournments in the face of the Covid pandemic Abir SULTAN, Abir SULTAN POOL/AFP
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Jerusalem (AFP)

Israel's longtime premier Benjamin Netanyahu is set to lose power after a diverse coalition united in an 11th-hour deal against him, raising questions about the next steps in his ongoing corruption trial.

Here's a look at what could lie ahead for the first Israeli prime minister to have been indicted in office:

- Immunity? -

If Netanyahu loses the premiership, it "wouldn't change anything in the case itself, because he didn't have immunity anyway", Amir Fuchs, an analyst at the Israel Democracy Institute, told AFP.

Under Israeli law, a sitting prime minister does not have automatic immunity from prosecution. But he or she is not obliged to resign when charged, only when convicted and after all avenues of appeal have been exhausted.

Netanyahu, 71, was formally charged in 2019 over allegations he accepted improper gifts and sought to trade regulatory favours with media moguls in exchange for positive coverage.

He is also accused of accepting cigars, champagne and jewellery worth 700,000 shekels (180,000 euros) from wealthy personalities in exchange for favours.

Netanyahu says there is no problem with receiving gifts from friends, and denies having acted inappropriately in return.

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He has lambasted the charges as part of a witch-hunt to drive him out of office.

The trial began in May 2020, with hearings repeatedly postponed in the face of the Covid-19 pandemic.

- Pardon? -

In power from 1996 to 1999 and then again since 2009, Netanyahu has acquired a reputation as a master political operator.

He has repeatedly sought to evade prosecution, pushing legislation to curb the power of courts and amend immunity law in his favour.

He has vied to reform Israel's basic laws, a de-facto constitution.

If Netanyahu loses power, the veteran primer minister would lose the ability to force changes to those basic laws.

Fuchs, a constitutional law expert, said that for two years the question had been: "Will Netanyahu change the basic laws of Israel to stop the trial?"

The primary shift in his defence strategy will be the elimination of that possibility.

Netanyahu faces a maximum of 10 years in prison for corruption, and three years for fraud and breach of trust.

The trial could drag on for years.

As is often the case in Israel, Netanyahu could offer a plea bargain, exchanging an admission of guilt for an acquittal on more serious charges or a lighter sentence.

In the event of a conviction, he could appeal to the Supreme Court.

As an ultimate -- but unlikely -- recourse, he could seek a presidential pardon during his trial.

On the same day his political foes united against him, parliament elected a new president: Isaac Herzog, a scion of one of Israel's most prestigious families who in 2015 lodged a bid to oust Netanyahu.

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The premier had openly campaigned for the largely ceremonial position to go to educator Miriam Peretz, thought to view him more favourably, but the Labor veteran Herzog won by a landslide.

Fuchs sees the likelihood of a pardon as low.

He said it would be "a terrible loss to the rule of law" if the trial stopped just because the president changed.

Netanyahu last appeared in court on April 5.