Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu arrived in court on Monday to formally answer corruption charges, as his trial enters an intensified phase six weeks before he faces re-election.
Netanyahu, the first Israeli prime minister to be indicted in office, was accused last year of accepting incorrect gifts and trying to trade regulatory favors with media moguls in exchange for positive coverage.
The controversial 71-year-old prime minister, who has blasted the accusations as “fabricated and ridiculous”, was in court in Jerusalem and handed over his legal team just before the trial was due to begin.
Netanyahu has repeatedly hinted that the charges against him have been trumped and has been directed directly at his hand-picked attorney general Avichai Mandelblit.
At Monday’s hearing, which was postponed several times due to coronavirus restrictions, Netanyahu is required to provide the defendant’s formal response to the allegations.
This marks the latest negotiation with upcoming sessions focusing on testimonials and evidence.
The trial schedule may force Netanyahu to appear in court several times a week, as he is campaigning ahead of Israel’s fourth election in less than two years, which will be held on March 23.
“The election mixes”?
When Netanyahu last appeared in court nine months ago, he was new to a political victory and formed a coalition government with his rival Benny Gantz, after three incomplete votes.
But the ugly coalition proved to be short-lived and collapsed in December, with Gantz branding Netanyahu as serial dishonest.
It is unclear whether the cloud of litigation will damage the premiere’s re-election options in March.
Israeli President and Netanyahu’s loyalist Yariv Levin insisted that the court must “postpone” the next phase of the trial.
“Continue now” will lend a hand to blatant interference in the election, “he told right-wing Israel Hayom on Sunday.
Levin accused that it was unfair for the prosecutor to present his case during the election campaign, while the defense forces are planned until 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.
4000, 2000, 1000
The charges against Netanyahu are divided into three separate cases.
The most serious – known as goal 4,000, where the premiere is accused of bribery, fraud and breach of trust – is about the accusation that he negotiated with Shaul Elovitch from the telecommunications giant Bezeq to ensure a positive coverage of his Walla! news site in exchange for policies that benefit Bezeq.
Elovitch and his wife were also charged.
Case 2000 is about accusations Netanyahu sought an agreement with the owner of the newspaper Yediot Aharonot who would have seen that it gave him more favorable coverage.
Case 1000 is about accusations that Netanyahu and his family received gifts, including luxury cigars, champagne and jewelry estimated at more than 700,000 shekels ($ 213,000), from wealthy individuals, in exchange for financial or personal benefits.
The Prime Minister denies wrongdoing.
Weekly protests against him have been raging for months, with protesters focusing on transplant allegations.
Others have protested against the government’s handling of the pandemic.
A crowd of protesters, at least one waving a placard with the words “Minister of Crime”, was outside the courtroom on Monday when Netanyahu’s motorcade arrived.