Netanyahu appears in court to plead not guilty as corruption trial resumes

Photo: EPA

Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu briefly appeared in a Jerusalem courtroom on Monday to respond formally to corruption charges just weeks before March national elections in which he hopes to extend his 12-year rule, AP reported.

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 criticizing his government’s response to the coronavirus crisis.

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 offenses, but does not specifically address the case of a prime minister under indictment.

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

Netanyahu has denied any wrongdoing and has dismissed the charges against him as a “witch-hunt” orchestrated by biased law enforcement and media. He has refused to step down.

At Monday’s hearing, Netanyahu submitted a written response to the allegations. His lawyer argued against the cases on procedural grounds, saying the attorney general had not properly approved the investigations. After around 20 minutes, Netanyahu left the courtroom without explanation and his motorcade departed. The hearing continued in his absence.

Netanyahu’s flimsy ruling coalition collapsed in December, and he now faces a major battle for reelection in parliamentary elections on 23 March. Netanyahu hopes to campaign on having pulled the country out of the pandemic through one of the world’s most successful vaccination campaigns.

But his government has faced heavy criticism for other aspects of its response to the crisis. The country is only now starting to emerge from its third nationwide lockdown, and the closures have sent unemployment skyrocketing.

One major controversy concerns Israel’s ultra-Orthodox Jewish community, many of whom have openly flouted restrictions on public gatherings. Netanyahu will need the ultra-Orthodox parties to form a ruling coalition, and his critics accuse him of turning a blind eye to their violations.

Polls show Netanyahu’s Likud winning the most seats but struggling to form a 61-seat majority coalition in the Knesset, Israel’s parliament. The margin of victory could be extremely tight, potentially allowing a small, fringe party to decide who heads the next government.

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