The Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, has pleaded not guilty to corruption charges as his trial resumed on Monday in a Jerusalem courtroom just weeks before a general election in which he will battle to remain in office.
He is the first sitting prime minister in Israel’s history to stand trial, and has called the charges against him an “attempted coup”.
Mr Netanyahu stands accused of accepting lavish gifts from wealthy friends and offering to grant favours to powerful media moguls in exchange for favourable coverage of him and his family.
The timing is tricky for Mr Netanyahu, who is Israel’s longest serving leader and hopes to extend his 12-year rule by winning the upcoming elections that are due to take place in March. Under Israeli law, Mr Netanyahu could face up to 10 years in prison if convicted of bribery, and a maximum three-year term for fraud and breach of trust.
Israeli law requires cabinet ministers to resign when charged with criminal offences but does not specifically address the case of a prime minister under indictment.
At Monday’s hearing, Mr Netanyahu’s lawyers argued against the cases on procedural grounds, saying the attorney general had not properly approved the investigations in writing.
Mr Netanyahu left after about 20 minutes without explanation and his motorcade departed.
The hearing continued in his absence, with his lawyers arguing for more than an hour that constitutional procedures had not been followed. The prosecution then rejected those arguments, saying the attorney general had approved the investigations in dozens of meetings.
Mr Netanyahu has vehemently dismissed the charges against him as a left-wing “witch-hunt” spearheaded by biased law enforcement and media that hope to push him from office.
In February 2018, the Israeli police said there was sufficient evidence to lodge three cases against the premier, labelled “1,000”, “2,000” and “4,000”.
A year later, Israel’s attorney general, Avichai Mandelblit, recommended that the prime minister should be indicted for fraud and breach of trust across all three cases, with an additional count of bribery in case 4,000.
The attorney general’s recommendation occurred just two months ahead of what would become the first of three inconclusive and extraordinary general elections in 11 months from April 2019.
Campaigning under the shadow of indictment, and battling a new centrist alliance spearheaded by his ex-army chief Benny Gantz, Mr Netanyahu was not able to gain enough votes to build a majority coalition on his own and instead formed a tumultuous alliance with his main election rival.
But that coalition collapsed in December and he now faces a major battle for re-election in the parliamentary elections on 23 March while still on trial.
Mr Netanyahu hopes to campaign on his track record of having pulled Israel through the pandemic by spearheading one of the world’s most successful vaccination campaigns.
He says he personally secured millions of doses from major pharmaceutical companies, enabling Israel to fully vaccinate more than one-third of its population of 9.3 million so far.
Mr Netanyahu hopes to vaccinate the entire adult population by late March.
Under Israeli law, even if Mr Netanyahu is convicted, he will not be forced to resign as prime minister – or alternate prime minister – until all the appeals and legal processes are exhausted. The trial is expected to take well over a year, particularly as sessions have been postponed in the pandemic.
There are only limited instances where this may not be the case, depending on whether the court deems his offence to be grave enough.
In that instance, the House Committee of the Knesset, Israel's parliament, may be called to decide on whether to recommend Mr Netanyahu be removed from office – which would require a majority of 61 members of the 120-seat legislative body.
In case 4,000, police have alleged that Mr Netanyahu granted regulatory favours to Israel’s leading telecommunications company, Bezeq, in return for more positive coverage on Walla, a news website belonging to the firm’s owner.
Case 2,000 focuses on suspicions that Mr Netanyahu negotiated a deal with leading daily newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth for better coverage in return for promises to limit the circulation of a rival.
Finally, in case 1,000, police argue that he received expensive gifts from wealthy friends including Australian billionaire James Packer and Israeli-born Hollywood mogul Arnon Milchan in exchange for political favours.
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