Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu lambasted Israel’s justice system for bringing “fabricated and ludicrous” charges against him as he became the first serving Israeli prime minister to face criminal prosecution.
The embattled leader arrived at a court in occupied East Jerusalem on Sunday to face a series of corruption charges.
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“The objective is to topple a strong prime minister from the rightist camp and thus to remove the right-wing from leadership for many years,” he said in a televised statement to reporters at Jerusalem District Court.
Netanyahu, flanked by aides and officials wearing face masks to prevent coronavirus infection, said he was “standing tall” with his “head held high” and would continue to lead the country.
Hundreds of people took part in rival protests in favour of Netanyahu and against him, shortly before his appearance at the court.
The hearing lasted an hour and Netanyahu spoke only to confirm his identity. The court excused Netanyahu from appearing in person at the next hearing, set for July 19. Israeli analysts say the trial could last months or even years.
The prime minister has been charged with fraud, breach of trust and accepting bribes in a series of cases. He is accused of accepting expensive gifts, such as cartons of champagne and cigars, from wealthy friends and offering favours to media moguls in exchange for favourable news coverage of him and his family.
In the most serious case, he is accused of promoting legislation that delivered hundreds of millions of dollars of profits to the owner of a major telecom company while wielding behind-the-scenes editorial influence over the firm’s popular news website.
Netanyahu, who heads the right-wing Likud party, denies all charges. He has cast his prosecution as a left-wing witch-hunt meant to overthrow a popular right-wing leader.
When he arrived at the courthouse, Netanyahu revived his claims that he is the victim of a deep state-type conspiracy by media, police, prosecutors and judges out to oust him.
He said police and prosecutors had conspired to “tailor” a case against him, and said the evidence was “contaminated” and exaggerated. He called for the court proceedings to be broadcast live on TV to ensure “full transparency”.
“While the media continues to deal with nonsense, with these false, trumped up cases, I will continue to lead the state of Israel and deal with issues that really matter to you,” he said, including to resuscitate the economy, and “continue to save the lives of thousands of Israelis ahead of the possibility of a second wave of coronavirus”.
Critics have said Netanyahu’s arguments have undermined Israel’s court system and risk deeper damage its democratic institutions.
As prime minister, Netanyahu is under no legal obligation to resign and he has said his court battle will not affect his ability to do his job.
Al Jazeera’s Harry Fawcett, reporting from East Jerusalem, said the opening of the trial on Sunday was mostly procedural.
“What we expect to hear today are the charges being recapitulated and read to Netanyahu,” he said.
“We may also hear arguments from the rival legal teams revealing what kind of evidence is available to the defence,” Fawcett added.
A three-judge panel, which will hear the prime minister’s case, on Wednesday turned down his request to stay away from the opening session.
In asking to be excused, Netanyahu called the event a formality and argued bringing his contingent of bodyguards would waste public funds and make it hard to comply with physical distancing rules.
Some critics said Netanyahu was trying to avoid the optics of a prime minister sitting in the defendant’s dock. Turning down his request, the court said it was important for justice to be done.
Political deadlock resolved
After three bruising elections over the past year, Netanyahu was sworn into office this week for a fourth consecutive term.
All three elections were seen as referendums on his fitness for office, and all ended in deadlock. After the most recent vote in March, his rival, Benny Gantz, appeared to have mustered enough support in Parliament to pass legislation that would have disqualified Netanyahu from serving as prime minister while under indictment.
However, in a stunning turnaround, Gantz, citing fears of a fourth expensive election and the coronavirus pandemic, agreed to shelve the legislation and instead form a power-sharing government with Netanyahu.
The Supreme Court cleared the way for Netanyahu to remain in power. In a key ruling, it said an indicted politician may serve as prime minister – even though Israeli law requires all other office-holders to resign if charged with a crime.
Yuval Shany, professor of law at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, said 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 prime minister would 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 told AFP news agency.
Under their deal, Netanyahu was forced to yield some powers to Gantz, with each wielding a veto over most key decisions. Gantz will hold the title of “alternate prime minister”, and after 18 months, they will swap jobs.
Six years ago, former prime minister Ehud Olmert was found guilty of bribe-taking and served 16 months in jail. His trial took place after his 2006-2009 term in office.