A three-judge panel in Jerusalem District Court ruled Sunday, July 19, that the evidentiary phase of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s corruption trial will begin in January. The judges ruled that the court will meet three times a week and that Netanyahu must attend to face witnesses testifying in the cases.
Although this is the schedule for now, much can change. Israeli newspapers were reporting Wednesday, July 22, that Netanyahu will allow his current government to fall, leading to new elections in November.
Other possibilities include the pandemic shutting the courts as they did in March or the prime minister resigning as he faces growing protests around the country.
The latter is especially unlikely for the longest-serving prime minister. However, late last year, he was indicted in three different cases, on an assortment of bribery, fraud and breach of trust charges. If he had held any other ministry title, according to Israeli law, he would have been forced to resign upon indictment. In Israel, however, prime ministers are not required to resign. And, after three elections in less than one year, Netanyahu was able to retain his position after cobbling together a coalition government with his main opponent’s party this past spring.
Netanyahu had been heading a caretaker government in the interim since late 2018.
After initially seeming to control the COVID-19 outbreak in Israel by essentially closing the borders and shutting down the economy, Netanyahu then quickly reopened the schools and many businesses and effectively lost control of the pandemic. The country’s unemployment rate skyrocketed to about 20 percent, with some 1 million workers out of jobs. The number of those infected with COVID-19 has also climbed sharply this month.
Israelis are now fighting back. According to Israeli newspapers, more than 1,000 social workers blocked roads near government offices Sunday in several major Israeli cities. At the same time, talks between the National Association of Nurses and the Israel Ministry of Finance collapsed, leading to a strike on Monday by the country’s nurses over staff shortages, exacerbated by the rising number of COVID-19 patients. The strike ended the same day with the government agreeing to hire 2,000 more nurses and 400 more doctors.
Continuous protests calling for Netanyahu’s resignation outside his official residence in Jerusalem have been growing, while in mid-July demonstrations against his handling of the pandemic and the economy expanded to more than 200 locations in Israel, including major cities such as Tel Aviv.
The head of opposition party Yesh Atid Yair Lapid called on Netanyahu to resign. “He’s failed. He’s lost control. The coronavirus crisis isn’t being managed.” Lapid’s message echoes the disillusionment expressed in a recent poll of Israelis.
Results of the special survey by the Guttman Center for Public Opinion and Policy Research at The Israel Democracy Institute reflected the collapse of Netanyahu’s support in the country. Fewer than 30 percent of those interviewed earlier this month said they still had trust in the prime minister’s handling of the situation.
According to the IDI, 75 percent of Israelis surveyed chose negative words to describe how they feel the government is functioning during the pandemic. Nearly 50 percent said they were “disappointed,” 22.5 percent described themselves as “angry” and 7 percent said they feel “alienated.” Only 15 percent chose positive words such as “satisfaction,” “trust” and “pride.”
The IDI survey also revealed Israelis’ economic concerns. Nearly 70 percent of low-income earners, 61 percent of average income earners and 35 percent of above average income earners expressed fear for their economic well-being in the foreseeable future.
Meanwhile, in the past few weeks, while anger over the health and economic crises was boiling over, Netanyahu convinced the legislative branch, the Knesset, to provide him with personal tax favors worth 1 million shekels (or about $293,000) adding to Israelis’ rage.
At the regular Sunday government cabinet meeting, Netanyahu proposed an aid package that would give Israelis, except those earning more than about $186,000 a year, a one-time stipend of the equivalent of a few hundred dollars. The controversial 6 billion-shekel (about $1.8 billion) proposal was opposed by the Bank of Israel and many economic experts. Instead of voting on the plan, a ministerial committee was empowered to establish criteria for the handouts.
At the same time, Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported that Finance Minister Israel Katz ordered a halt on a $15.4 million government aid package to nonprofit associations to keep the aid from assisting asylum seekers. The plan was designed to help the “needy, homeless, Holocaust survivors, sexual assault victims and other groups that had not received any government aid.”