Netanyahu lashes out at ‘ludicrous’ graft charges as trial begins

Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu (right) in court as his corruption trial opens at the Jerusalem District Court.  (AP pic)

JERUSALEM: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu arrived at a Jerusalem court Sunday for the start of his long-delayed corruption trial, rejecting the “ludicrous” charges against him and declaring he was facing the hearing “with my head held high.”

The veteran premier, who has just forged a unity government after over a year of political turmoil, now faces the next challenge – being the country’s first premier to face criminal charges while in office.

Flanked by ministers and bodyguards, Netanyahu addressed reporters before entering the Jerusalem District Court where he was to face charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust.

He condemned the “fabricated and ludicrous” allegations and declared: “I’m here with a straight back and my head held high.”

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

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

Netanyahu also requested “for everything to be broadcast live and uncensored so that the public will know”.

Foundations of democracy

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) from wealthy personalities in exchange for favours.

During Sunday’s court session he was expected only to confirm his identity. His lawyers began the court session by arguing for a delay to the trial, which is expected to last months if not years.

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”.

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.

Conflict of interest

Netanyahu’s trial had been due to open in mid-March, but the Covid-19 pandemic led to a postponement to May 24, and the proceedings will be marked by social distancing and other hygiene measures.

The premier’s lawyers unsuccessfully requested that he be excused from appearing in person at the opening of the trial.

They argued that his attendance, to hear the formal reading of the charges against him and confirm that he has read and understood them, was merely technical.

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 the latter role, 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.