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Israel's Netanyahu attacks 'fabricated' corruption charges as trial begins

Pro- and anti-Netanyahu demonstrators gathered on Sunday [Getty]

Date of publication: 24 May, 2020

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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was on Sunday forced to appear before the court for his first hearing on corruption charges.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu arrived at a Jerusalem courthouse on Sunday saying his head was "held high" as he began a long-delayed corruption trial.

Wearing a suit with a blue and white tie, and flanked by ministers, Netanyahu addressed reporters before entering the court where he faces charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust.

Repeating his denial of all allegations, he condemned the "ludicrous" charges against him.

"I'm here with a straight back and my head held high," he said.

The right-wing leader of the Likud party and longest-serving prime minister in Israeli history has long claimed to be the victim of a witchhunt. 

"When you need to take me down, a strong prime minister from the right, everything is possible," he said.

Netanyahu added a request for the rest of his trial to be broadcast live, unlike the opening session at which the court banned TV cameras.

"I ask for everything to be broadcast live and uncensored so that the public will know," he said.  

A long trial ahead

The premier's defence team had earlier this week requested that Netanyahu be allowed to skip Sunday's court opening. That request was rejected by court officials.

Originally scheduled to begin in March, Netanyahu's trial was postponed until Sunday due to the coronavirus crisis.

[Click to enlarge]

The opening session lasted about one hour, with the premier speaking only once to confirm his identity. 

The veteran leader's defence team began the session by requesting a lengthy delay to review evidence. No date was set for the next session of the trial which is expected to last months, if not years.

The 70-year-old was indicted in January for bribery, fraud and breach of trust in a series of cases.

Among the charges he faces is seeking to illegally trade favours in exchange for positive media coverage.

He is also accused of accepting cigars, champagne and jewellery worth 700,000 shekels (180,000 euros) from wealthy personalities in exchange for favours.

Small demonstrations of both supporters and opponents gathered in Jerusalem.

"I came to demonstrate against the accused prime minister who uses his power to destroy the foundations of democracy," said Yoav Eitan, 39, at a rally of around 800 people outside Netanyahu's residence.

Elsewhere, Mali, an elderly woman in a pro-Netanyanu protest of more than 200 people, said: "Benjamin Netanyahu is pure and clean. We will fight to ensure a just trial."

Political 'death warrant'

Among the most serious allegations against Netanyahu is the claim that he offered media mogul Shaul Elovitch regulatory changes worth millions of dollars to his telecom giant Bezeq in exchange for favourable reporting on the Walla! news website.

That charge is also the most complex, said Amir Fuchs, a researcher at the Israel Democracy Institute, who argued it differs from "classic" bribery cases where money changes hands.

In this case, Fuchs said, the allegation is that Netanyahu "is getting only media coverage", rather than cash.

"It is unprecedented," he told reporters.

But in the Bezeq case, Fuchs added, Netanyahu is accused of doing far more than to seek flattering write-ups.

"It was actually complete editorial control of this site even on the specifics of which posts to make, or which pictures," he said.

After months of suspense and repeated police questioning of Netanyahu, Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit in January filed charges against the premier.

Many commentators considered this the premier's political death warrant.

But Netanyahu retained the Likud party leadership and after three inconclusive general elections managed to hammer out a power-sharing deal with his chief election rival Benny Gantz.

Under the agreement, Netanyahu will continue to lead the government for 18 months before handing over the premiership to Gantz.

Under Israeli law, a sitting prime minister does not have automatic immunity from prosecution but also is not obliged to resign when charged. The move can only be taken when convicted and after all avenues of appeal have been exhausted.

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