After years of investigations and deliberations (and even a last-minute delay due to the coronavirus pandemic), the opening session of Mr Netanyahu’s landmark trial will finally begin.
The premier has been ordered to physically appear at the Jerusalem District Court for the session, which will no doubt draw intense media attention.
He had unsuccessfully tried to argue that the presence of his five bodyguards might violate Covid-19 social distancing measures.
- So how did Israel get here?
It has been a long and bumpy journey which began with a police investigation launched around four years ago. Mr Netanyahu has from the start vehemently denied all charges.
In February 2018, the Israeli police said there was sufficient evidence to lodge three cases against the premier, labelled “1000” “2000” and “4000”.
A year later Israel’s attorney general Avichai Mandelblit recommended that – pending a pre-trial hearing – the prime minister be indicted for fraud and breach of trust across all three cases, with an additional count of bribery in “case 4000”.
It was tricky timing for Benjamin Netanyahu who labelled the process a “political witch hunt” spearheaded by his leftist opponents.
The attorney general’s recommendation occurred just two months ahead of what would become the first of three inconclusive and extraordinary general elections.
Campaigning under the shadow of indictment – and battling a new centrist alliance spearheaded by his ex-army chief Benny Gantz – Mr Netanyahu was not able to sweep enough of the votes to build a majority coalition and stay in office.
Since no one was able to form a government after the April vote, yet another election was called in September. The pre-trial hearing was duly postponed to October to allow for both ballots.
On 21 November 2019 – while Mr Netanyahu was in the grips of another failed attempt to build a government – Mr Mandelblit announced that he would be proceeding with indictment charges.
Mr Netanyahu toyed with the idea of asking Israel’s parliament, the knesset, to grant him immunity in January 2020.
Just weeks before an unprecedented third election and as Mr Netanyahu was in Washington for the launch of Donald Trump’s long-awaited Middle East peace plan, he changed his mind. It had become clear that the parliament would ultimately reject his request.
When the results of the March 2020 election also showed no clear winner (and with the spectre of a fourth election on the horizon) Mr Netanyahu joined forces with his chief rival Mr Gantz to build an “emergency” unity government.
In May, Israel’s Supreme Court ruled that Mr Netanyahu can serve as prime minister while under indictment and that the unity deal with Gantz did not violate the law.
Under the agreement, Mr Netanyahu remains prime minister for 18 months until November 2021, with Mr Gantz as “alternate prime minister” before they swap roles.
During the second 18-month period Mr Netanyahu, who will then become Mr Gantz’s deputy, will enjoy the similar legal protections as prime minister: meaning he cannot be automatically forced to resign due to being on trial.
And so, Mr Netanyahu is both Israel’s longest-serving prime minister and the first to stand trial while in office.
- What are the charges?
Netanyahu has been indicted across three corruption cases.
Case 1000 – fraud and breach of trust
Here Mr Netanyahu allegedly received expensive gifts from wealthy friends and in return took actions in their favour.
The case centres around accusations by the police that he and his wife received gifts such as cigars and champagne amounting to over a million shekels or £270,000 from Hollywood mogul Arnon Milchan, and his Australian billionaire business partner James Parker.
Mr Netanyahu claims that they were gifts from personal friends.
Case 2000 – fraud and breach of trust
This focuses on suspicions Mr Netanyahu negotiated a deal with Israeli daily Yedioth Ahronoth for better coverage in return for promises to limit the circulation of rival newspaper Israel Hayom.
Mr Netanyahu was apparently caught on tape speaking about the idea with Yedioth Ahronoth’s owner, a recording which is the basis for the case. The prime minister has argued he was not serious about the deal and never intended to go through with it.
Case 4000 – bribery, fraud and breach of trust
Mr Netanyahu is accused of granting regulatory favours to media mogul Shaul Elovitch – head of leading telecommunications company, Bezeq! – in return for more positive coverage on Walla, a news website Elovitch also owned.
Mr Netanyahu’s lawyers argue more favourable coverage does not constitute a bribe.
- What happens if he is found guilty?
Under Israeli law, Mr Netanyahu could face up to 10 years in prison if convicted of bribery and a maximum three-year term for fraud and breach of trust, if found guilty.
That said, even if he is convicted, he will not be forced to automatically resign as prime minister – or alternate prime minister – until all the appeals and legal processes are exhausted.
There are only limited instances where this may not be the case depending on whether the court deems his offence to be grave enough.
In that instance, the knesset’s House Committee may be called to decide on whether to recommend he be removed from office – which would require a majority of 61 members of Israel’s 120-seat parliament.
- What will happen on Sunday?
Mr Netanyahu will present himself to the court to hear and confirm he understands the charges against him.
It is not clear what exactly will take place after this, but his legal team will start the process of presenting preliminary arguments to counter the criminal charges.
At the end of this process – which may take several sessions – Mr Netanyahu will then submit a response of “not guilty”. A time frame will be set to hear the evidence.
- How long will the trial last?
No one knows but given the huge body of evidence and the large number of witnesses it is expected to last well over a year.