Israel's Netanyahu on trial as coalition talks ramp-up

Jerusalem, Undefined: Israel's legal and political dramas converged Monday, as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu faced court in his corruption trial while his bid to form a government after another inconclusive election reached a critical phase.

The 71-year-old veteran premier -- who last month contested his fourth election in less than two years -- arrived at the Jerusalem courthouse where he was met by supporters but also opponents who called him Israel's "crime minister".

Israel's first premier to be indicted in office was ordered to appear in person at Jerusalem's District Court for the opening arguments in a case where is charged with bribery, fraud, or breach of trust.

As court proceedings got underway, President Reuven Rivlin held talks to determine which party leader has the best chance of forming a stable government following the March 23 election.

Israel remains mired in the worst political crisis in its 73-year history, with voters and the 120-member parliament bitterly split over whether Netanyahu deserves to extend his record tenure of 12 consecutive years.

Netanyahu's right-wing Likud party finished first in the polls almost two weeks ago, winning 30 seats, but his path to a 61-seat absolute majority is precarious.

The anti-Netanyahu camp, however, lacks a clear leader, is ideologically divided, and will also struggle to forge a majority coalition.

'Serious corruption'

Netanyahu, wearing a black face mask and a dark suit, sat in court as lead prosecutor Liat Ben-Ari told judges that the premier was involved in "a serious case of government corruption".

He has been charged with accepting improper gifts and seeking to trade regulatory favors with media moguls in exchange for positive coverage -- allegations which he denies.

Ben-Ari said Netanyahu had "made illegitimate use of the great governmental power entrusted to him," in his dealings with media executives "in order to advance his personal affairs".

In an unscheduled address hours after the hearing had ended, Netanyahu insisted it was the prosecution that abused its office.

"This is what a coup looks like," he charged in inflammatory remarks indirectly aimed at Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit, a Netanyahu appointee who filed the charges against the prime minister.

With permission from judges, Netanyahu left the courtroom before the prosecution called its first witness, the former chief executive of the Walla news site, Ilan Yeshua.

Yeshua testified that he had regularly received instructions from Netanyahu's allies to post articles favorable to the prime minister and information that smeared his rivals.

"It was clear that we were a website that did what the prime minister's office asked us," Yeshua told the court.

According to Yeshua's testimony, a key target of Netanyahu's alleged smear campaign was Naftali Bennett, the prime minister's estranged former protege, who now leads the religious-nationalist Yamina party.

That could spell trouble for Netanyahu, who will likely need Bennett's support in order to form a government.

Presidential meetings

Meanwhile, Rivlin was meeting with party officials throughout the day.

According to custom, he will give the leader with the most recommendations from individual lawmakers a 28-day window to form a government. That can be extended by 14 days at the president's discretion.

The recommendations were proceeding as expected: Likud, the two ultra-Orthodox Jewish parties, and far-right Religious Zionism alliance all backed Netanyahu, giving him 52 endorsements, nine short of an absolute majority.

The election's second-place finisher, the centrist Yesh Atid party, used its 17 votes to endorse leader Yair Lapid, a former television host.

Lapid also secured eight votes controlled by Defence Minister Benny Gantz, who was Netanyahu's main rival in the three previous elections.

Gantz's decision to join a short-lived coalition under Netanyahu caused his political support to collapse.

Lapid took seven votes a piece from the left-wing Labor party and from Israel Beitanu, led by Avigdor Lieberman, a right-wing secularist popular among Russian immigrants to Israel.

While Lapid may top Netanyahu's 52 endorsements before Rivlin's talks end, forming a stable anti-Netanyahu alliance will require a tightrope deal, unifying right-wingers, leftists, centrists, and possibly Arab Israelis lawmakers who have never joined a government in the Jewish state.

Yamina has endorsed Bennett for prime minister, in another expected development.

But his position could evolve after Rivlin assigns a mandate.

In an unprecedented twist for Israeli coalition politics, it appears impossible for either camp to form a government without support from the conservative Islamic Raam Party, which controls four seats.

Its leader Mansour Abbas has said he is open to hearing from all sides.

If both the prime minister and the anti-Netanyahu camp fail to form a coalition, Israel could soon face the fifth election.

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