Israel: Netanyahu dismisses corruption charges when trial resumes

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Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Monday again dismissed corruption charges against him in a brief court appearance in Jerusalem, six weeks before an election crucial to his political survival.

• Read also: ICC and Occupied Territories: “pure and simple anti-Semitism”, says Netanyahu

With a black sanitary mask on the lower face, Netanyahu, 71, remained for about 20 minutes Monday morning in the courtroom of the Jerusalem courthouse, where he is on trial on charges of corruption, fraud and breach of trust in three cases.

“I approve of the response written on my behalf,” he said, referring to a letter written by his lawyers and presented to justice last month, in which he “denies all charges” against him.

The record holder for the longevity of Israeli prime ministers with 15 years in office, Mr. Netanyahu is the first head of government in Israel’s history to be tried while in office.

In court, his lawyers Boaz Ben Zur and Amit Hadad accused Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit, who had been appointed by Mr. Netanyahu, of mismanaging the case. According to them, part of the investigation was opened without the required permissions.

The judges said they would study the allegations before announcing the dates for the next stage of the trial, suggesting that Mr. Netanyahu is not expected to appear in court before the March 23 poll.

The defense had previously requested a few months to prepare the case, arguing its complexity.

Benjamin Netanyahu, who does not enjoy any immunity, had denounced “ridiculous” charges at the opening in May 2020 of the trial.

“1,000, 2,000, 4,000”

On Monday, demonstrators gathered outside the court called for the departure of the head of government. “Get out”, “You shall not steal”, could one read on the banners.

“We are here to sweep away all the dirt and all the corruption that he (Mr. Netanyahu, editor’s note) has created in recent years,” Claudia Manoquian, a protester, told AFP. “Netanyahu wants to establish a dictatorship in Israel, we will not let him.”

The Prime Minister is on trial in three cases. The Bezeq file, also known as “Case 4.000”, where he is accused of trying to secure favorable coverage by the Walla site against government favors which could have brought in millions of dollars to Shaul Elovitch, then boss of the giant Israeli telecoms company Bezeq, of which Walla is a member.

Mr. Netanyahu, who also held the Communications portfolio at the time, denied seeking favorable coverage from Walla in exchange for his approval in 2015 of a Bezeq merger with satellite TV distributor Yes.

In the “2000 Affair” or Mediagate, he is accused of having sought to secure favorable coverage, but this time of the most widely read paid daily in Israel, the Yediot Aharonot, in exchange for a possible law limiting distribution. of the free newspaper Israel Hayom, its main competitor.

In the third case, “The 1,000 Affair”, Mr. Netanyahu and members of his family are suspected of having received gifts – luxury cigars, bottles of champagne and jewelry – for more than 700,000 shekels (around 175,000 euros) from personalities in exchange for financial or personal favors.

Netanyahu said he received a legal opinion from experts concluding that he was entitled to accept gifts from close friends and denies granting any favors.

Electoral battle

At the start of his trial, Mr. Netanyahu had just formed a unity government with his rival Benny Gantz. But since then, demonstrations against the Prime Minister have multiplied and the coalition has broken up.

As a result, new legislative elections are scheduled for March 23 – the fourth in less than two years – which raises fears about an impact of the trial on the vote.

Yariv Levin, Speaker of Parliament and close to Mr. Netanyahu, said in Israel Hayom that he feared “unprecedented interference in the elections” if the court presented evidence against the prime minister “now”.

The electoral battle is also far from won for Mr. Netanyahu, who hopes to rally a majority of seats in order to eventually pass a law that would ensure him judicial immunity.

His party, the Likud (right), remains at the top of the polls with 29 seats out of 120, ahead of the centrist Yaïr Lapid (17) and the right-wing rebel Gideon Saar (14). But he would not manage to reach, with his various allies, the threshold of majority (61).

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