The trial came a week after the longest-serving Israeli leader was sworn in for a fifth record term, demonstrating his talent for survival by securing an unexpected power-sharing deal with his main opponent after three inconclusive elections in one year. He says the lawsuits against him are a leftist plot to dislodge him.
Netanyahu, 70, was charged in November with gifts of millionaire friends and allegedly seeking regulatory favors for media moguls in exchange for favorable coverage.
He appeared before the Jerusalem District Court flanked by a handful of cabinet ministers from his right-wing Likud party.
In the courtroom, Netanyahu and the judges were wearing masks because of the coronavirus crisis. One of the judges asked Netanyahu if he had read and understood the indictment. He replied, “Yes, your honor. “
The hearing lasted an hour. The court exempted Netanyahu from appearing in person at the next hearing, scheduled for July 19. Israeli analysts say the trial could last for months, if not years.
Before the hearing, Netanyahu appealed to the public, removing his mask to speak to television cameras in the hallway of the courthouse.
“These investigations were tainted and rewired from the first moment,” said Netanyahu. “I am appearing here today, as Prime Minister, standing tall and head up,” he said.
Supporters, some masked, gathered in front of the East Jerusalem building, chanting “Bibi, King of Israel,” using his nickname, which can be heard in the courthouse. A supporter sign said, “You will never walk alone.”
Anti-Netanyahu protesters gathered outside his residence in central Jerusalem, holding up a banner labeled “Minister of Crime,” a slogan that also appeared on some masks.
Netanyahu, in power for 11 consecutive years plus three in the 1990s, retained the post of prime minister by signing a power-sharing agreement last month with his main opponent, former centrist generalist Benny Gantz.
The pact also paves the way for Netanyahu to proceed with a promised annexation of parts of the occupied West Bank, land the Palestinians seek for a state.
Charges of corruption carry a sentence of up to 10 years in prison and / or a fine. Fraud and breach of trust result in a prison sentence of up to three years.
Written by Jeffrey Heller; Editing by Dan Williams and Peter Graff
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