Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu denies bribery charges as his corruption trial resumes just weeks before elections where he will bid to extend his 12-year rule
- Netanyahu, 71, pleaded not guilty at Jerusalem District Court on Monday
- He was indicted in 2019 in three cases involving gifts from millionaire friends and alleged favours for media tycoons in exchange for positive coverage
- The trial, postponed by the Covid-19 pandemic, resumes as Israel prepares for its fourth election in less than two years
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu pleaded not guilty on Monday to corruption charges at the resumption of his trial some six weeks before Israeli voters again pass judgment on his leadership.
‘I confirm the written answer submitted in my name,’ Netanyahu said, standing before a three-judge panel in a heavily-guarded Jerusalem District Court.
He was referring to a document his lawyers gave the court last month in which they argued he was not guilty of charges of bribery, breach of trust and fraud.
Netanyahu, 71, was indicted in 2019 in long-running cases involving gifts from millionaire friends and for allegedly seeking regulatory favours for media tycoons in return for favourable coverage.
He last came to court in May at the start of a trial subsequently delayed by coronavirus lockdowns.
Netanyahu has repeatedly called his prosecution a political ‘witch hunt’ and has taken direct aim at his hand-picked attorney general, Avichai Mandelblit.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu pleaded not guilty on Monday to corruption charges at the resumption of his trial. Pictured: Netanyahu arrives at the hearing at Jerusalem’s District Court on Monday
A crowd of protesters, at least two holding a banner emblazoned with the words ‘Crime Minister’, was outside the courtroom on Monday as Netanyahu’s motorcade arrived
At the Monday hearing, which was pushed back multiple times due to coronavirus restrictions, Netanyahu was compelled to deliver the defendant’s formal response to the allegations.
This marked the last pre-trial hearing with upcoming sessions focused on testimony and evidence.
The trial schedule may force Netanyahu 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.
When Netanyahu last appeared in court nine months ago, he was fresh off a political victory, forming a coalition government with his election rival Benny Gantz, following three inconclusive votes.
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.
Weekly protests against Netanyahu have rumbled on for months, with demonstrators focusing on the graft allegations. Pictured: A protester wearing a Netanyahu mask holds up his cuffed hands at a demonstration outside the court on Monday
A protester holds up a sign reading: ‘You failed’ outside a Jerusalem court on Monday as Netanyahu answered charges against him in multiple corruption trials
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.
Levin charged that it was unfair for the prosecution to present its case during the election campaign, while the defence rebuttals are scheduled for after election day.
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.
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 the 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.
There have been frequent protests in Israel over Netanyahu’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic, despite Israel leading the world in vaccinations. Pictured: Israelis receive doses of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine at a centre set up in a shopping mall car park in Givatim on Thursday
Case 2,000 concerns allegations that 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 that Netanyahu and his family received gifts, including luxury cigars, champagne and jewellery estimated to be worth more than 700,000 shekels ($15,5048.02), from wealthy individuals, in exchange for financial or personal favours.
The prime minister denies wrongdoing.
Weekly protests against him have rumbled on for months, with demonstrators focusing on the graft allegations.
Others have protested against the government’s handling of the pandemic.
A crowd of protesters, at least one holding a banner emblazoned with the words ‘Crime Minister’, was outside the courtroom on Monday as Netanyahu’s motorcade arrived.
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