Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has returned to court and pleaded not guilty to corruption charges as his trial enters an intensified phase six weeks before an election.
The Monday hearing, which was pushed back multiple times because of coronavirus restrictions, is where he has to deliver his formal response to the allegations. Subsequent sessions will focus on testimony and evidence.
Netanyahu, the first Israeli prime minister to be indicted in office, was charged last year over allegations he accepted improper gifts and sought to trade regulatory favour with media moguls in exchange for positive coverage.
The combative 71-year-old leader denounced the charges as “fabricated and ludicrous” ahead of his first court appearance in May and claimed to be the victim of a witch-hunt, taking direct aim at his hand-picked attorney general, Avichai Mandelblit.
Al Jazeera’s Harry Fawcett, reporting from outside the court in Jerusalem, said dozens of anti-Netanyahu demonstrators had gathered outside.
“The object of his legal team is to respond to the charges of bribery in three separate cases. This hearing sets out the main schedule of the trial, at which Netanyahu may have to appear three times a week,” he said.
The trial schedule may force Netanyahu to appear in court multiple times a week as he campaigns ahead of Israel’s fourth election in less than two years to be held on March 23.
When Netanyahu last appeared in court nine months ago, he was fresh off a political victory, forming a coalition government with his election rival Benny Gantz following three inconclusive votes.
But that fraught coalition proved short-lived and collapsed in December with Gantz branding Netanyahu as “serially dishonest”.
It is unclear whether the shadow cast by the trial will hurt the prime minister’s re-election chances. But it is likely he will fight to remain leader in the upcoming elections in March and possibly for years afterwards. If he wins, he could try to secure parliamentary immunity or pass laws to exempt a serving prime minister from standing trial.
Israel’s parliament speaker and Netanyahu loyalist Yariv Levin insisted the court must “postpone” the trial’s upcoming phase.
Proceeding now “will be lending a hand to blatant meddling in the elections”, he told the right-wing Israel Hayom newspaper on Sunday.
Levin said it was unfair for the prosecution to present its case during the campaign, while the defence rebuttals are scheduled for after election day.
Several recent polls show Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud remains the strongest party by a comfortable margin, but it is not certain it will be able to form a 61-seat majority with its conservative and religious allies.
For the first time in his political career, Netanyahu is also facing a challenge from a prominent Likud defector Gideon Saar, who broke with the prime minister to form his own New Hope party.
The charges against Netanyahu are divided into three separate cases.
The most serious – known as Case 4000, in which he is accused of bribery, fraud and breach of trust – centres on the allegation that Netanyahu negotiated with Shaul Elovitch of the telecommunications giant Bezeq to secure positive coverage on his Walla! news site in exchange for policies benefitting Bezeq.
Elovitch and his wife were also indicted.
Case 2000 concerns allegations Netanyahu sought a deal with the owner of the Yediot Aharonot newspaper that would have seen it give him more favourable coverage.
Case 1000 involves allegations Netanyahu and his family received gifts, including luxury cigars, champagne and jewellery estimated to be worth more than 700,000 shekels ($213,000), from wealthy individuals, in exchange for financial or personal favours.
Bribery charges carry a jail sentence of up to 10 years and/or a fine, while fraud and breach of trust carry a sentence of up to three years.
The prime minister denies wrongdoing. Under Israeli law, a prime minister is under no obligation to stand down unless convicted.
Weekly protests against him have rumbled on for months with demonstrators from the “Crime Minister” movement focusing on the graft allegations. Others have protested against the government’s handling of the pandemic.
A counter-protest movement in support of Netanyahu has also taken to the streets.
The prime minister on Sunday urged his followers to not demonstrate outside the court, citing the danger from coronavirus mutations.
“I know you are planning on coming to the court tomorrow. I know you want to offer me strength in the face of the crumbling and deceitful cases against me,” he said.
“For your health, I’m asking you, don’t come.”
Netanyahu has served as Israel’s prime minister since 2009, and in the past two years has managed to hang onto power through three tumultuous, deadlocked elections.