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Netanyahu attacks 'fabricated' graft charges as trial begins

24 May 2020, MVT 22:07
(FILES) In this file photo taken on February 9, 2020 Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu chairs the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem. - Israel's president on May 7 tasked Netanyahu with forming a new government after lawmakers endorsed a coalition pact with his election rival, a government statement said. (Photo by RONEN ZVULUN / POOL / AFP)
24 May 2020, MVT 22:07

A combative Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu faced court Sunday for the start of his long-anticipated corruption trial after lashing out at the "fabricated" charges against him.

The veteran leader, who has just forged a new unity government after more than a year of political turmoil, became the country's first premier to face criminal charges while in office.

Flanked by ministers from his right-wing Likud party, Netanyahu addressed reporters before entering the Jerusalem District Court to face charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust.

"I'm here with a straight back and my head held high," Netanyahu said, labelling the charges "fabricated and ludicrous".

The longest-serving prime minister in Israeli history has claimed to be the victim of a witch-hunt and again suggested the charges were trumped up to drive him from office.

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

The trial, officially called the State of Israel vs Benjamin Netanyahu, is expected to last for months, if not years.

During Sunday's session Netanyahu spoke only to identify himself, before the court adjourned after one hour.

He was not asked to enter a plea, which will occur in a later session.

'Foundations of democracy'

The 70-year-old was indicted in January after several years of police investigations.

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.

Wearing a facemask, like the judges and lawyers, to limit the spread of the new coronavirus, Netanyahu sat silently through much of the court session, occasionally exchanging whispers with his legal team.

His lawyers immediately argued they had not received timely access to all the relevant documents and requested a delay of several months to the next hearing.

Other defendants, including media moguls Shaul Elovitch and Arnon Mozes, both accused of seeking illegal deals with Netanyahu, were also in court.

The court did not immediately set a date for the next session.

Outside on the streets of Jerusalem, Netanyahu supporters and opponents gathered to raise their voices.

"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 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.

In the Bezeq case, Fuchs added, Netanyahu is accused of seeking overwhelming editorial influence.

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

'Conflict of interest'

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 he retained the Likud party leadership and won the most seats in a March general election.

After two inconclusive elections in a year, the third left him able 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.

Netanyahu's trial had been due to open in mid-March, but the COVID-19 pandemic led to a postponement.

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

Yuval Shany, law professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, argued that there is "a basic incompatibility" between Netanyahu's role as head of the government and his status as a criminal defendant.

In court, Shany said, the premier will be "fighting very aggressively and maybe effectively to weaken the government authorities that are prosecuting him".

"There is a very serious conflict of interest situation," he said.

Jerusalem, Undefined | AFP