Netanyahu pleads not guilty as corruption trial resumes before election

Israel’s PM calls for evidentiary stage of trial to be postponed until after voters go to polls

An Israeli protester dressed as Lady Justice in a demonstration outside the Jerusalem district court. Photograph: Emmanuel Dunand/AFP via Getty

An Israeli protester dressed as Lady Justice in a demonstration outside the Jerusalem district court. Photograph: Emmanuel Dunand/AFP via Getty

 

Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu pleaded not guilty on Monday at the resumption of his corruption trial, only six weeks before voters go to the polls in the country’s fourth election in two years, with polls showing a dead heat between the pro- and anti-Netanyahu camps.

“I confirm the written answer submitted in my name,” Mr Netanyahu told the three-judge panel in a brief appearance at the Jerusalem district court.

Outside the heavily guarded courtroom, protesters carried signs reading “Crime Minister” and “Go Vote”.

Mr Netanyahu, the first serving Israeli prime minister to go on trial, claims that the charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust in three separate corruption scandals are nothing more than a witch-hunt by the left, supported by the judiciary and media, in an effort to topple him from power.

In the first of the three, known as Case 1,000, Mr Netanyahu and his wife, Sara, are alleged to have received gifts worth €230,000, including cigars, pink Champagne and jewellery, from wealthy friends.

Case 2,000 centres on an allegation that Mr Netanyahu asked the publisher of the Yedioth Aharonoth newspaper for more positive coverage in exchange for help in reining in a rival publication, the popular, pro-Netanyahu free newspaper Yisrael Hayom, owned by American casino mogul Sheldon Adelson, a close friend of the prime minister at the time, who died last month.

Case 4,000 is the most serious of the three and the only one involving bribery allegations. It involves claims that Mr Netanyahu, when he also served as communications minister between 2015 and 2017, ensured financial benefits amounting to hundreds of millions of euro for Bezeq, Israel’s largest telecommunications company, which was owned by Shaul Elovitch, in return for favourable coverage of Mr Netanyahu and Sara on the popular news website Walla!, also owned by Mr Elovitch.

‘Crude intervention’

Mr Netanyahu’s defence team asked the court to postpone the evidentiary stage of the trial by at least three months, until after the March 23rd election.

Calling the allegations against him fabricated, Mr Netanyahu predicted the court would delay the evidentiary phase of the trial until after the election.

“It doesn’t seem to me that they’ll hurry to the evidentiary stage before the elections. In any case, that would be seen – even if that’s not the intention – as crude intervention in the elections,” he said, predicting he would win the election whatever the judges decide.

Acting justice minister Benny Gantz, head of the centrist Blue and White party, said that although it was a “hard, sad day” for the country, it showed that nobody was above the law.

“This is an important day in which every person understands that nobody is immune from the law,” he said.

Under Israeli law, a leader charged with a crime is not required to resign but the calls for Israel’s longest-serving prime minister to step down to concentrate on clearing his name are likely to increase if he wins the March election.