Netanyahu’s Corruption Trial Delayed Until May Over Coronavirus


JERUSALEM — Justice will have to wait.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s long-awaited trial on bribery and other corruption charges, scheduled to begin on Tuesday, has been delayed at least until May 24, Israeli court officials announced on Sunday morning, citing the coronavirus pandemic.

The move came a few hours after Mr. Netanyahu’s handpicked justice minister, Amir Ohana, imposed emergency measures on Israeli courts in an order announced after 1 a.m.

It was likely to bolster Mr. Netanyahu’s efforts to retain power, at least in the short term.

Leaders of Israel’s political parties held a series of meetings on Sunday with President Reuven Rivlin to offer their recommendations about whom should he should entrust with the task of forming a government.

In a first, all 15 members of the combined slate of predominantly Arab parties, the Joint List, recommended Mr. Netanyahu’s challenger, the former army chief Benny Gantz.

Mr. Netanyahu, Israel’s longest-serving premier, failed on March 2 for the third time in a year to win a new term outright after he fell short of a majority in parliamentary elections. Anti-Netanyahu forces led by Mr. Gantz’s centrist Blue and White party won a slim majority in Parliament, but Israel remains politically deadlocked. Mr. Netanyahu’s holdover right-wing government, led by his Likud party, is still in charge but is wanting for public legitimacy.

The charges against Mr. Netanyahu include fraud and breach of trust. He is accused of accepting bribes from several media tycoons including expensive gifts and overwhelmingly positive media coverage in exchange for lucrative official favors.

Mr. Netanyahu said on Sunday morning that he had again asked Mr. Gantz to “join a national emergency government headed by me.” He said he had proposed to lead such a government for two years and then to allow Mr. Gantz to take over as prime minister.

But opponents of Mr. Netanyahu have spurned his previous overtures about such a rotation agreement on the grounds that they do not believe he would keep a promise to step aside.

Mr. Gantz responded witheringly to the idea. “Netanyahu, let’s not manipulate the public,” he wrote on Twitter. “If you’re interested in unity, why postpone your trial at 1 a.m. and send an ‘emergency unity’ outline to the press, instead of sending your negotiating team to a meeting? Unlike you, I will continue to support every appropriate governmental measure, leaving political considerations aside. When you get serious, we can talk.”

The delay of Mr. Netanyahu's trial set off a wave of criticism on the Israeli left. “We have the Italian mafia here, and how,” Yariv Oppenheimer, a former director of Peace Now, wrote on Twitter.

And Nitzan Horowitz, leader of the Meretz party, said, “Courts and parliamentary operations must not be suspended, even in emergencies.”

Leaving the president’s residence on Sunday, Ayman Odeh, the Joint List’s leader, said it had recommended Mr. Gantz in part out of concern for Israeli democracy. “We see fascism in the regime,” he told reporters, “not in the society, but in the one who heads the government, Benjamin Netanyahu.”

The written order by the justice minister, Mr. Ohana, had a duration of a single day, but a spokesman said officials would reassess the situation late Sunday and decide whether to extend it.

It was released just hours after Mr. Netanyahu announced on Saturday night that digital and technological means would be employed to track citizens known to have contracted the virus — an extraordinary measure that he said had been drawn from Israel’s war on terrorism.

Israel was “at war” with an “invisible enemy,” Mr. Netanyahu said.

The attorney general approved the new surveillance measures overnight.

Even before the announcement by Mr. Ohana, Mr. Netanyahu’s opponents had accused him of exploiting the pandemic to consolidate his power and to try to force the establishment of a national unity government with himself at its head.

“Everyone who criticized us when we warned that we were turning into Erdogan’s Turkey should acknowledge and internalize the cynical exploitation of the coronavirus crisis for the personal political interests of a defendant before a trial,” Moshe Yaalon, a former army chief who is a leader of Mr. Gantz’s party, wrote on Twitter just before midnight Saturday.

Early Sunday, after Mr. Ohana’s order but before the Netanyahu trial had formally been delayed, Mr. Yaalon added: “Blue and White has enlisted to eradicate the coronavirus, unconditionally and without political interests. Blue and White cannot be complicit in the elimination of democracy in our country by a defendant running away from justice.”

As Israel’s coronavirus caseload topped 200 Sunday morning, the government ordered the closure of all leisure venues, including cafes, restaurants, gyms, day care centers and cultural institutions. Public gatherings are limited to 10 people, and workers must work from home if possible.

The defense minister, Naftali Bennett, announced late Saturday that Israel was converting three hotels — in northern, central and southern Israel — to isolate patients known to be carrying the virus but who have not yet shown symptoms. The move was meant to avoid overwhelming hospitals with patients who may not need much medical care.

The Jerusalem Waqf, a trust that administers the Islamic holy sites atop the Temple Mount, announced on Sunday that it was shutting Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock indefinitely. Prayers will still be permitted in outdoor areas of the Temple Mount.


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