Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu arrived in court on Monday to officially respond to allegations of corruption as his process enters an intensified phase six weeks before his re-election.
Netanyahu, the first Israeli prime minister charged in office, was charged last year on charges of accepting inappropriate gifts and attempting to trade regulatory favors with media moguls in exchange for positive coverage.
The combative 71-year-old prime minister, who has labeled the charges “fabricated and ridiculous”, was in Jerusalem court shortly before the hearing began and spoke to his legal team.
Netanyahu repeatedly suggested that the charges against him had been exposed and targeted his hand-picked attorney general, Avichai Mandelblit.
At Monday’s hearing, which was pushed back several times due to coronavirus restrictions, Netanyahu is forced to deliver the defendant’s formal response to the allegations.
This is the final pre-trial hearing with upcoming sessions focused on testimony and evidence.
The trial plan could force Netanyahu to appear in court several times a week as he is running ahead of Israel’s fourth election in less than two years on March 23.
“Meddling in Elections”?
The last time Netanyahu appeared in court nine months ago, he was fresh from a political victory and, after three inconclusive votes, formed a coalition government with his electoral rival Benny Gantz.
But this strained coalition proved short-lived and collapsed in December. Gantz called Netanyahu serially dishonest.
It’s unclear whether the cloud of process will affect the prime minister’s chances of re-election in March.
Israeli parliamentary speaker and Netanyahu loyalist Yariv Levin insisted that the court should “postpone” the upcoming phase of the trial.
Proceeding now “will support the apparent interference in the elections,” he told the right-wing Israel Hayom newspaper on Sunday.
Levin accused prosecutors of not being able to present their case during the election campaign, while the defense rebuttals are scheduled after election day.
Several recent polls show that Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud remains by far the strongest party, but it is by no means certain that it can form a 61-seat majority with its conservative and religious allies.
For the first time in his political career, Netanyahu is also facing the challenge of a prominent Likud defector: Gideon Saar, who broke with the prime minister to create 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, which charges the Prime Minister with bribery, fraud, and breach of trust – revolves around the allegation that he negotiated with Shaul Elovitch of telecommunications giant Bezeq to ensure positive coverage of his Walla! News page in exchange for guidelines that benefit Bezeq.
Elovitch and his wife were also charged.
Case 2,000 concerns allegations Netanyahu sought a deal with newspaper owner Yediot Aharonot that would have given him cheaper coverage.
Case 1,000 concerns allegations Netanyahu and his family received from wealthy individuals in exchange for financial or personal favors, including luxury cigars, champagne, and jewelry estimated to be worth over 700,000 shekels ($ 213,000).
The Prime Minister denies wrongdoing.
There have been weekly protests against him for months, with protesters focusing on the transplant allegations.
Others have protested the government’s handling of the pandemic.
A crowd of demonstrators, at least one of whom carried a banner reading “Crime Minister”, was outside the courtroom on Monday when Netanyahu’s motorcade arrived.
(This story was not edited by GossipMantri staff and is automatically generated from a syndicated feed.)