Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appeared in court briefly Monday, reaffirming his innocence, as his corruption trial enters an intensified phase weeks before a fourth national election inside two years.
Netanyahu, the first Israeli premier to be indicted in office, was formally charged last year over allegations that he accepted improper gifts and sought to trade regulatory favour with media moguls in exchange for positive coverage..
The combative 71-year-old prime minister, who has blasted the charges as “fabricated and ludicrous”, spent just 20 minutes inside the courtroom at Monday’s hearing.
He had been compelled to appear to deliver a formal response to the allegations.
Shortly after lead judge Rivka Feldman Friedman opened the hearing by reading the cases against him, Netanyahu said that he stood by his innocence as previously expressed in writing.
“I confirm the written answer submitted in my name,” Israel’s longest-serving premier said, shortly before exiting the courtroom and rejoining his motorcade.
Monday marks the last pre-trial hearing with upcoming sessions focused on testimony and evidence.
The hearing was continuing, with the premier’s lawyers Boaz Ben Zur accusing Israel’s Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit — a Netanyahu appointee — of mishandling the case.
Netanyahu has repeatedly charged that he is the victim of a witch-hunt, with the allegations against him trumped-up.
The trial schedule may force the prime minister to appear in court multiple times a week, as he campaigns ahead of Israel’s fourth election in less than two years to be held on March 23.
– ‘Election meddling’? –
When Netanyahu last appeared in court nine months ago, he was fresh off a political victory, forming a coalition government with election rival Benny Gantz, following three inconclusive national polls.
But that fraught coalition proved short-lived and collapsed in December, with Gantz branding Netanyahu as serially dishonest.
It is unclear whether the cloud of the trial will hurt the premier’s re-election chances in March.
Israel’s parliament speaker and Netanyahu loyalist Yariv Levin insisted the court must “postpone” the trial’s upcoming phase.
Proceeding now “will be lending a hand to blatant meddling in the elections”, he told the right-wing Israel Hayom newspaper on Sunday.
Several recent polls show that Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud remains the strongest party by a comfortable margin, but it is far from certain that it will be able to form a 61-seat majority with its conservative and religious allies.
For the first time in his political career, Netanyahu is also facing a challenge from a prominent Likud defector: Gideon Saar, who broke with the prime minister to form his own New Hope party.
– 4,000, 2,000, 1,000 –
The charges against Netanyahu are divided into three separate cases.
The most serious — known as Case 4,000, in which the premier is accused of bribery, fraud and breach of trust — centres on the allegation that he negotiated with Shaul Elovitch of telecommunications giant Bezeq to secure positive coverage on his Walla! news site in exchange for policies benefiting Bezeq.
Elovitch and his wife were also indicted.
Case 2,000 concerns allegations Netanyahu sought a deal with the owner of the Yediot Aharonot newspaper that would have seen it give him more favourable coverage.
Case 1,000 involves allegations Netanyahu and his family received gifts, including luxury cigars, champagne and jewellery estimated to be worth more than 700,000 shekels ($213,000), from wealthy individuals, in exchange for financial or personal favours.
The prime minister denies wrongdoing.
He would be forced to resign if convicted with all appeals exhausted, but that process is likely to take several years.
Weekly protests against him have rumbled on for months, with some demonstrators focusing on the graft allegations.
Dozens of protesters met Netanyahu’s motorcade at the court Monday, some carrying placards branded with the words “Crime Minister” and others taunting him as he entered and exited the court.
“We are here to swipe (away) all the dirt and all the corruption that he has created,” protester Claudia Manoquian told AFP.
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