Las Vegas casino magnate Sheldon Adelson and Oracle Corp. founder Larry Ellison are among 333 potential witnesses in the corruption trial of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the country’s attorney general announced Monday.
Israelis got a glimpse of the legal and political battle ahead as indictments were formally served against Netanyahu, triggering a 30-day clock in which he can request parliamentary immunity. Atty. Gen. Avichai Mandelblit had announced the indictments on Nov. 21 but held off presenting them to the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, until a number of Netanyahu’s procedural queries were resolved.
The filing provided an eye-opening look at the huge list of potential witnesses, rife with internationally prominent names.
They included Ellison, who was rumored to have an interest in Israeli media acquisitions, and Adelson and his wife, Miriam, who own a free Israeli newspaper and have been staunch supporters of Netanyahu. Other potential witnesses include Israeli ambassador to the United States Ron Dermer, one of Netanyahu’s closest associates; Israeli-born Hollywood producer Arnon Milchan; and American businessman and former ambassador Ron Lauder.
The Adelsons’ Israeli attorney, Avigdor Klagsbald, said he could not say whether his clients would be asked to appear in court in Israel. Asked whether the criminal case had changed their support of the prime minister, Klagsbald said, “I don’t know.”
Netanyahu was indicted on one count of bribery and three counts each of fraud and breach of trust, in three cases involving the alleged exchange of gifts for political favors and his alleged attempts to influence the media. In one case, he is alleged to have offered a deal to the publisher of Israel’s leading daily newspaper, Yediot Aharonot, in which Netanyahu would suppress the Adelsons’ paper, Hayom, in exchange for more positive coverage in Yediot.
Israel’s longest-serving prime minister, Netanyahu is the first Israeli head of government to be charged while in office.
“The rushed manner in which the incomplete document was served to the Knesset speaker is evidence of the influence of the political calendar,” Netanyahu said late Monday. Since his indictment, he has accused the nation’s judiciary and law enforcement authorities of engaging in an “attempted coup d’état.”
His political future, and that of the country, remains shrouded in questions.
Despite his long political dominance, Netanyahu is now a caretaker prime minister. Twice in the past year, in April and in September, he led Israel to elections but failed to win an outright majority or form a coalition with smaller parties. His principal rival, the centrist Benny Gantz, a former army chief, similarly failed once. If the impasse is not resolved by midnight on Dec. 11, Israel will automatically be thrust into a third consecutive electoral campaign.
Although Israeli law dictates that a prime minister is obliged to resign only if convicted, the law has not determined the legal status of a caretaker prime minister who is a defendant in a criminal trial.
Contributing to the sense of political limbo, Netanyahu has not yet announced whether he plans to seek parliamentary immunity, which could delay proceedings by several months — as could an electoral campaign.
If he does request immunity, it is unclear that he can get it. Complicating matters is a legal Catch 22: The Knesset committee empowered to consider the matter has not been constituted because no government has been formed.
In an unlikely coincidence, as the papers were delivered to the Knesset on Monday, the prime minister’s wife, Sara Netanyahu, was testifying in court in a separate legal entanglement. She is on trial for libel, having been accused by Menny Naftali, a former house master of the prime minister’s residence. In 2016, Naftali won $47,000 in damages for the “exploitation and abuse” he suffered at Sara Netanyahu’s hands while in state employ.
In June, Sara Netanyahu admitted to criminal offenses in a plea deal, after she was accused of spending nearly $100,000 on food while a chef stood ready to cook for her family. She avoided jail by paying a fine of almost $15,000 but accepted a criminal record.
Protesters shouted “thief!” as she entered the courthouse Monday in Herzliya, north of Tel Aviv.