Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Picture: REUTERS/RONEN ZVULUN
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Picture: REUTERS/RONEN ZVULUN

Jerusalem — Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will mount a last-ditch appeal this week to avert graft charges that could destroy a political career doubly endangered by a dramatic election stalemate.

Netanyahu’s hearing begins on Wednesday, giving him a chance to tell his side of the story to attorney-general Avichai Mandelblit, who announced in February that he intends to indict the prime minister in three corruption cases. It is the first time a sitting Israeli leader has come so close to trial, and Israeli television reported that Mandelblit is expected to decide in November whether to proceed to court.

The prime minister says he is the innocent victim of a conspiracy by left-wing opponents and media figures who deplore his nationalist agenda and are frustrated by their inability to vote him out of power. He has said he will not step down unless convicted, and legally he can stay in office until the appeals process is exhausted.

Netanyahu will approach the hearing just days after President Reuven Rivlin appointed him to try to piece together his fifth government after inconclusive September 17 elections. He entered the race badly weakened by the graft suspicions, however, and it is not clear he will be able to muster the support of a parliamentary majority because he and his declared allies won just 55 of parliament’s 120 seats in the vote.

Netanyahu has said he will make one more attempt to convince the main opposition party Blue and White, headed by former military chief Benny Gantz, to enter a unity government, before giving up and putting the next step back in Rivlin’s hands. Gantz on Tuesday cancelled a meeting that had been scheduled to take place on Wednesday between the two leaders, signalling that a deal was not imminent.

Netanyahu’s legal entanglements have given him added incentive to stay in power because he has been angling to push through a new law that would shield an incumbent leader from trial.

If he succeeds in building a coalition but is indicted, then the distraction of criminal charges could hamper his ability to govern. The back-to-back elections have already paralysed policymaking, holding up the Trump administration’s release of its blueprint for Middle East peacemaking and delaying efforts to narrow the country’s widening budget deficit.

Cigars and champagne

The graft investigation began in 2016 and expanded from allegations Netanyahu received about $200,000 in gifts of cigars, champagne and jewellery from wealthy businessmen to include policy decisions that reshaped the country’s communications landscape. Testimony from three former confidants was key to building the case against Netanyahu, who faces possible bribery and fraud charges.

The most serious case alleges he promoted regulatory changes that benefited an Israeli media mogul in exchange for sympathetic coverage.

Netanyahu has insisted the suspicions would not stand up to close examination. In the battle to clear his name, he mounted a campaign to discredit Israeli journalists and leftists, disparaging them on billboards and social media, as well as in public appearances. He also blamed his opponents for his disappointing electoral showing in the September 17 election.

The spectacle of senior officials on trial has become a familiar one in Israel. Its past four prime ministers have all been investigated, and Netanyahu’s immediate predecessor, Ehud Olmert, was sent to jail for bribery, though he stepped down while fighting the charges. Former president Moshe Katsav served five years in prison for rape.