An Israeli prosecutor told a court on Monday that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had helped a business couple to clinch deals worth hundred of millions of shekels in exchange for favourable coverage of him on a news website they controlled.
Netanyahu’s corruption trial opened on a day of high political drama in Israel as President Reuven Rivlin held talks with party delegations on who they would recommend he pick to try to form a government after an inconclusive election last month, the country’s fourth in two years.
A spokesperson for Rivlin said the president would announce his decision on Tuesday. Netanyahu, whose right-wing Likud party came first in the March 23 ballot, won the most endorsements, but was still short of a governing majority in parliament.
Speaking at the trial in Jerusalem District Court, state prosecutor Liat Ben-Ari said: “The relationship between Netanyahu and the (co-) defendants became currency, something that could be traded.”
“This currency could distort a public servant’s judgment,” Ben-Ari said.
Netanyahu has pleaded not guilty to charges of bribery, breach of trust and fraud in a case that, along with the inconclusive election, has clouded his prospects of remaining in office. It is the first criminal trial of a sitting Israeli prime minister.
In a video statement on his Facebook page after the day’s court session concluded, Netanyahu again accused Israeli legal authorities of mounting a witch hunt to remove “a strong right-wing prime minister” from office.
“This is what a coup attempt looks like,” he said, using a term he has invoked before about the prosecution’s conduct.
The state said Netanyahu was responsible for regulations that allowed a telecommunications power-couple, Shaul and Iris Elovitch, to win deals worth “many hundreds of millions of shekels” in return for them sweetening coverage of the premier on the Walla news site, then under their control.
Former Walla CEO Alan Yeshua testified that while employed there he had been “barraged” by demands from the Elovitchs and by Netanyahu confidants to promote the prime minister and play down or attack his political rivals.
“The Elovitches asked me not to let the editors know that the reason for the requests had to do with imminent regulatory moves,” Yeshua told the court.
Iris Elovitch, who like her husband denies wrongdoing, interrupted Yeshua, shouting: “How much can you lie?”
Netanyahu, who faces two additional cases, spent an hour at the court session, departing with the judges’ consent before Yeshua testified.
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