Israel’s veteran Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was set Sunday to become the country’s first sitting premier to face criminal charges over a string of corruption allegations which he denies.
Fresh from forming a new government after more than 500 days of electoral deadlock, Netanyahu was expected to begin a new battle in the Jerusalem District Court — to stay out of prison.
The 70-year-old was scheduled to appear at a 1200 GMT court hearing to formally confirm his identity to judges, after being indicted in January for bribery, fraud and breach of trust.
Protests against his rule were scheduled shortly before the opening of the trial, which is expected to last months if not years.
Among the charges Netanyahu faces is that he sought to illegally trade favours in exchange for positive media coverage for himself in Yediot Aharonot, Israel’s top-selling newspaper.
Israel’s longest-serving leader is also accused of accepting cigars, champagne and jewellery worth 700,000 shekels (180,000 euros) from wealthy personalities in exchange for favours.
He denies all the charges and on Sunday re-tweeted right-wing American commentator Mark Levin, who labelled the day “one last effort by the Left in Israel to remove and destroy Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu”.
Speaking at the first formal cabinet meeting of his unity new government later, Netanyahu did not mention the trial, instead highlighting his work combating the coronavirus outbreak.
– 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.Netanyahu, whose trial was delayed because of the coronavirus pandemic, says the accusations of corruption against him are part of a witch hunt by the media and legal officials
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”.
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 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.