JERUSALEM, Israel – Israel’s political turmoil continued on Wednesday after the Rosh Hashanah holiday when Blue and White leader Benny Gantz canceled a meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to form a unity government.
The meeting was meant to be a last-minute effort for the Netanyahu’s Likud and Gantz’s rival Blue and White party to form a government coalition and avoid a third Israeli election.
Blue and White said in a statement Tuesday that the "minimum conditions" for a productive meeting with Likud were not met. Blue and White wants Likud to negotiate by itself and not as head of a rightwing block that includes religious parties.
Likud speculated Gantz canceled the meetings because his Blue and White partner Yair Lapid wants to be prime minister, a rotation deal he worked out with Gantz when the two of them joined forces for the elections. But Lapid denied the charge.
Last week Israeli President Reuven Rivlin tapped Netanyahu to form a government after an unprecedented Sept 17. election that ended with neither Gantz nor Netanyahu with a 61-seat majority in the Knesset. Netanyahu has 28 days to do so but the prime minister could return the mandate sooner if he feels he can't form a government.
Gantz's canceled meetings also moved Netanyahu's serious legal troubles to center stage.
Wednesday is the first day of Netanyahu’s pre-indictment hearings surrounding a series of corruption allegations.
Attorney-General Avichai Mandelblit announced in February his intent to indict Netanyahu, pending the hearing, on charges of bribery, fraud, and breach of trust in three separate cases.
Case 4000 contains the most serious charge of bribery, which involves accusations that Netanyahu offered Shaul Elovitch, the main shareholder of Israel's leading telecommunications company "Bezeq”, favorable government policies in exchange for positive coverage of the Netanyahu family on Bezeq's "Walla! News."
Legal Expert Pro. Gad Barzilai told reporters in a conference call bribery is a very serious offense that carries a sentence of up to 10 years.
Case 1000 involves allegations that Netanyahu received gifts worth 900,000 NIS (approximately 250,000 USD) from billionaire benefactors without declaring those gifts. Under Israeli law, any public official must declare the gifts they receive and to refuse to do so is a severe felony. Mandelblit said he intends to charge Netanyahu with fraud and breach of trust in this case.
Lastly, Case 2000 includes allegations that Netanyahu struck up a deal with Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper publisher Arnon Mozes to weaken a rival newspaper in exchange for positive coverage. Mandelblit said he intends to charge Netanyahu with fraud and breach of trust in this case. Mozes already underwent his own pre-indictment hearing last month and will be charged with bribery.
Netanyahu denies all allegations of wrongdoing and his attorneys believe they can prevent the indictments.
“We are going to present not only the evidence everyone is aware of but also new evidence,” said attorney Amit Hadad. “We are sure that once we present our findings there will be no choice but to close the case. We believe in the hearing process, we are not talking about a deal, we believe and know that at the end of the day all the three cases must be closed."
The hearings are scheduled to take place over four days before Mandelblit decides if Netanyahu should be indicted.
If indicted, Barzilai said it may take up to two years of legal proceedings before a verdict is handed down. If Netanyahu is convicted, he must immediately leave office.
Mandelblit's decisions will have a huge impact on Netanyahu’s political future, but one legal expert said it's not clear if the prime minister would even get a fair trial if it comes to that point since he's already being tried in the media.