Israeli PM pleads not guilty as corruption trial resumes

JERUSALEM (AP) — Israeli Prime Minister (PM) Benjamin Netanyahu pleaded not guilty yesterday as his trial on corruption charges resumed in a Jerusalem courtroom just weeks before national elections in which he hopes to extend his 12-year rule.

Netanyahu was indicted last year for fraud, breach of trust and accepting bribes in three separate cases. In recent months, Israelis have held weekly protests calling on him to resign over the charges and criticising his government’s response to the coronavirus crisis. Protesters gathered outside the courthouse could be heard inside the room where the hearing was being held.

He stands accused of accepting lavish gifts from wealthy friends and offering to grant favours to powerful media moguls in exchange for favourable coverage of him and his family. The latest hearing was postponed last month due to lockdown restrictions on public gatherings.

Israel’s longest serving leader is also the first sitting prime minister to go on trial for corruption. Israeli law requires Cabinet ministers to resign when charged with criminal offences, but does not specifically address the case of a prime minister under indictment.

Netanyahu denied any wrongdoing and has dismissed the charges against him as a “witch-hunt” orchestrated by biased law enforcement and media. He refused to step down and has used his office as a bully pulpit against critics and the criminal justice system.

A protester wearing a mask depicting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu poses for photographers outside the court during Netanyahu’s corruption trial. PHOTO: AP

At yesterday’s hearing, Netanyahu’s lawyers submitted a written response pleading not guilty. They then argued against the cases on procedural grounds, saying the attorney general had not properly approved the investigations in writing.

After around 20 minutes, Netanyahu left the courtroom without explanation and his motorcade departed.

The hearing continued in his absence, with his lawyers arguing for over an hour that constitutional procedures had not been followed. The judges appeared sceptical and repeatedly called on the defence lawyers to wrap it up. The prosecution then rejected those arguments, saying the attorney general approved the investigations in dozens of meetings.

Outside the courthouse, around 150 protesters chanted against Netanyahu. Many carried banners reading “Crime Minister”.

“We want a new government, a clean government, no corruption” said Sharon Sagy, a protester, “We do not want Bibi Netanyahu, we want him to go, he needs to go,” she said, using his nickname.

At the start of his trial last May, Netanyahu was flanked by a cohort of Likud party allies as he railed against the media, police, judges and prosecutors. He said the trial aimed to “depose a strong, right-wing prime minister, and thus remove the nationalist camp from the leadership of the country for many years”.

Netanyahu served as Israel’s prime minister since 2009, and in the past two years managed to hang onto power through three tumultuous, deadlocked elections. His flimsy ruling coalition collapsed in December, and he now faces a major battle for reelection in March 23 parliamentary elections.

Netanyahu hopes to campaign on having pulled the country out of the pandemic through one of the world’s most successful vaccination campaigns. He boasts of having personally secured millions of doses from major drug makers, allowing Israel to vaccinate more than a third of its population of 9.3 million. He hopes to vaccinate the entire adult population by late March.