JERUSALEM — Three electoral challenges by a popular former army chief could not unseat Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. A clear majority of Israeli lawmakers could not set aside their differences long enough to oust him.
On Sunday afternoon, hours after presiding over a meeting of his expanded new cabinet, Mr. Netanyahu left the seat of power in Jerusalem, rode a short distance to an East Jerusalem courthouse and settled into a very different government chair: the hard wooden bench reserved for a criminal defendant.
The long-awaited opening of proceedings in the matter of the State of Israel v. Benjamin Netanyahu took the prime minister and the country into uncharted and dangerous territory. Few sitting national leaders since Charles I of England have stood trial on criminal charges brought over their official acts. Mr. Netanyahu, who broke with tradition by not resigning to defend himself, is Israel’s first.
The trial is expected to last a year or more, with the first witnesses not expected to testify for months. If convicted, Mr. Netanyahu, who has long maintained his innocence and insisted that the case would come to nothing, could face years in prison.
For Israel and its young and malleable democracy, putting the most powerful man in the country on trial may seem like a statement about the resilience and fairness of government institutions.
“It’s a sign of strength,” Sima Kadmon, a political columnist at daily newspaper Yediot Ahronot, said in an interview on Sunday morning. “In spite of everything, Benjamin Netanyahu is going on trial today.”
But others say that Mr. Netanyahu’s decision not to step aside, as his predecessors Yitzhak Rabin and Ehud Olmert had done when under investigation, was a national badge of shame and exposed a grave weakness that could become more critical the longer the trial lasts.
Prof. Shlomo Avineri, a political scientist at Hebrew University, said that Israel was confronted by a host of serious challenges, both longstanding and new, but that Mr. Netanyahu’s trial would prove to be as much of a distraction from those as the investigations that led up to it.
“It’s going to haunt the system,” Professor Avineri said. “This is not what public discourse should be about. And this is going to continue for some time.”
Worse, good-government experts warn, if the accusations against Mr. Netanyahu boil down to conflicts of interest, those are nothing compared with the perceived conflicts that could arise when the prime minister is simultaneously leading the nation and fighting for his freedom.
“If, God forbid, we will have a war, is it going to be because there is a security threat, or because this is going to be a wag-the-dog kind of moment that you want to disrupt public opinion?” said Prof. Yuval Shany, a legal scholar at Hebrew University and the Israel Democracy Institute.
Such doubts could extend to matters large and small: appointments, appropriations, even the response to the coronavirus, experts say. “Every decision will be suspect; every move will be suspicious,” wrote Yaakov Katz, the editor of The Jerusalem Post.
Mr. Shany said there was a “basic incompatibility” between Mr. Netanyahu’s running the government and his “fighting as a defendant, and fighting very aggressively and maybe very effectively, in order to weaken the authorities of government that are prosecuting him.”
Mr. Netanyahu has waged a long campaign to discredit the law enforcement system, calling the cases against him a “witch hunt” and assailing the police and prosecutors, many of them fellow right-wingers or Netanyahu appointees, as left-wing shills.
On the eve of the trial, his allies in the Likud party stepped up that attack, denouncing the attorney general as a criminal and saying that anything short of an acquittal would devastate the public’s faith in the justice system.
“It is the right-wing camp that is on trial,” Amir Ohana, the newly appointed public security minister who oversees the police, said in a television interview on Saturday night.
In an extraordinary scene, Mr. Netanyahu arrived inside the courthouse on Sunday and delivered a fiery broadside denouncing the case against him, calling it “an attempt to thwart the will of the people an attempt to bring me and the right down.”
With mask-wearing Likud ministers arrayed behind him, Mr. Netanyahu, wearing a blue-and-white striped tie but no mask, accused the police, prosecution and “left-wing newspapers” of colluding against him, but said he would not be cowed.
“They don’t mind if some sort of obedient right-wing poodle comes instead, but I am not a poodle,” he said, before entering the cramped courtroom and listening, occasionally nodding, for an hour as his lawyers took turns asking a three-judge panel to delay the proceedings by months, pushing testimony off until spring 2021.
Nahum Barnea, an influential columnist for Yediot Ahronot, observed that Mr. Netanyahu’s goal was “to delegitimize the prosecution and the judges before the trial has even begun.”
After the volley from Likud ministers and lawmakers, he predicted, a social-media barrage led by Mr. Netanyahu’s son, Yair, would come, and then “the mobs will head into the street and might even overrun the court.”
So Mr. Barnea sought instead to douse the flames of the culture war. “It isn’t Jesus who is being tried, and it isn’t Pilate who is handing down the verdict,” he wrote. “Relax.”
Still, with protesters for and against Mr. Netanyahu noisily demonstrating outside the courthouse — on Salah a-Din Street, in East Jerusalem, which no other country has formally recognized as part of Israel — there seemed to be ample reason to expect that the great rupture in Israeli society between Mr. Netanyahu’s devotees and those who see him as a scourge would only be aggravated by his trial, however it turns out.
“Some people I know did not believe that this day would ever come,” said Fania Oz-Salzberger, a left-wing political theorist and historian at the University of Haifa’s law school.
“We’re celebrating a small victory,” she said. “But almost everyone around me is suspecting that this trial will somehow be stopped in its tracks. What I would call the deep democracy, the civil society, is now hugely alert to whatever can go wrong.”