In Israel, twin dramas point to difficult path for Netanyahu


TEL AVIV, Israel — Israel’s future and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s fate wound through court and political circles on Tuesday, as the country’s president weighed whether corruption charges against the premier should influence his choice of who should lead the government.

The extraordinary decision before President Reuven Rivlin comes as Netanyahu’s trial reopened on a day that might shed light on who, if anyone, can lead the splintered government after its fourth election in two years.

The March 23 vote revolved around whether Israel’s longest-serving prime minister remains fit to continue serving in the post. It produced no governing majority in the 120-seat Knesset, leaving it to Rivlin to pick a party leader most likely to form a coalition. The parliament was to be sworn in later Tuesday.

Netanyahu was not expected to appear in court Tuesday, but his increasingly fraught future ran through both arenas.

In politics, his Likud party won the most seats in the election, but came up short of a majority.

In court, where he faces fraud, breach of trust and bribery charges in three separate cases, the outlook was not flattering. A key witness on Monday cast Netanyahu as an image-obsessed leader who forced a prominent news site to help his family and smear his opponents.

Netanyahu denies all charges and in an nationally televised address accused prosecutors of persecuting him in an effort to drive him out of office.

“This is what a coup attempt looks like,” he said.

While a ruling could be months or even years away, the proceedings are expected to take place up to three days a week, an embarrassing and time-consuming distraction that is certain to amplify calls for Netanyahu to step aside.

A few kilometers (miles) away, Rivlin consulted with the various parties elected to parliament before he was to chose a candidate to form a new government. The talks risked plunging the country into an unprecedented fifth consecutive election.

Israeli media reported that Rivlin was considering another factor that alluded to Netanyahu’s legal difficulties. In a meeting with the Likud party, Rivlin said “there may be a moral component to choosing a prime minister,” but he did not know whether that factor was up to him or the Supreme Court.

With both Netanyahu and his main rival, Yair Lapid, failing to gain the support of a majority of lawmakers, Rivlin faces the difficult task of choosing the leader most likely to be able to form a governing coalition with 61 votes.

Late on Wednesday, Lapid called on the country’s anti-Netanyahu factions — a patchwork of parties with vast ideological differences — to put aside their differences and form a unity government. He said he had even offered Naftali Bennett, leader of a small right-wing party, a power-sharing rotation, with Bennett serving first as prime minister.

“Anyone who saw Netanyahu’s reckless performance today understands he can’t carry on in his job,” Lapid said Tuesday.

Netanyahu spent part of Monday in court, where the evidentiary phase of his trial unfolded. The session focused on the most serious case against Netanyahu — in which he is accused of promoting regulations that delivered hundreds of millions of dollars of profits to the Bezeq telecom company in exchange for positive coverage on the firm’s popular news site, Walla.

Ilan Yeshua, Walla’s former chief editor, described a system in which Bezeq’s owners, Shaul and Iris Elovitch, repeatedly pressured him to publish favorable things about Netanyahu and smear the prime minister’s rivals.

The explanation he was given by the couple? “That’s what the prime minister wanted,” he said.

In his televised statement, Netanyahu accused prosecutors of conducting a “witch hunt” against him.

The intertwined political question hovered. Rivlin has until midnight Wednesday to choose a prime minister-designate who would be given up to six weeks to form a coalition. If he feels there is no clear choice, he also could send the issue straight to the Knesset, ordering lawmakers to choose a member as prime minister or force another election.

Associated Press Writer Ilan Ben Zion contributed to this report from Jerusalem.

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