An Israeli court has said the corruption trial of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will begin on March 17, two weeks after national elections are held.
Netanyahu is charged with bribery, fraud and breach of trust under a number of cases in which he is alleged to have accepted lavish gifts from billionaire friends and exchanged regulatory favours for more positive media coverage. Netanyahu denies the charges and says he is the victim of a politically motivated witch-hunt.
In a brief statement on Tuesday, the court said Netanyahu is expected to attend the initial hearing.
Under Israeli law, a sitting prime minister is only required to step down once convicted of an offence and after all avenues of appeal have been exhausted.
Israel will hold parliamentary elections on March 2, its third vote in less than a year, after two elections failed to yield a conclusive result.
Netanyahu’s campaign has sought to divert attention away from the corruption charges while his main challenger, former military chief Benny Gantz, has sought to highlight it. He argues that Netanyahu is unfit to serve as prime minister while fighting the legal charges.
Gantz had refused after September elections to join a unity government led by Netanyahu, saying he must first settle his differences with the judiciary before taking power.
Pre-election polls indicate that neither Gantz nor Netanyahu has a clear path to a parliamentary majority.
Netanyahu has heavily emphasised his relationship with United States President Donald Trump in seeking to shore up support with his nationalist base in Israel.
Gantz himself recently met Trump at the White House, where he welcomed the president’s strong support for Israel.
Last month, Trump unveiled his so-called Middle East plan, which heavily favours Israel on key contentious issues including borders, the status of Jerusalem and illegal Jewish settlements.
The plan envisions a disjointed Palestinian state that turns over key parts of the occupied West Bank to Israel.
It was made without the input of Palestinians, who have rejected it, and who broke off ties with the Trump administration after it controversially recognised Jerusalem as the capital of Israel in late 2017.