Jerusalem: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Sunday lashed out at the country’s justice system, rejecting the charges against him as “ludicrous”, as his long-awaited corruption trial got underway, making him the first sitting premier of the country to go on trial for corruption. Also Read - Under PM Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel Agrees to Further Strengthen Bilateral Ties With India
Netanyahu, the country’s longest-serving prime minister, appeared at the opening hearing at a Jerusalem court to face charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust, days after he returned to power following months of political deadlock. Also Read - Netanyahu Says New Govt Will be Sworn-in With Pledge of Israeli Sovereignty Over West Bank
The 70-year-old Israeli leader is accused of fraud, breach of trust and accepting bribes in three different cases, dubbed Case 1000 (fraud and breach of trust), Case 2000 (fraud and breach of trust) and Case 4000 (bribery, fraud and breach of trust). It is the first time in the country’s history that a sitting prime minister is facing a criminal trial. Also Read - 6 Feet Apart: Thousands of Israelis Maintain Social Distancing While Protesting Against Benjamin Netanyahu
Speaking to the media before entering the Jerusalem District Court, Prime Minister Netanyahu told reporters the investigations against him were tainted from day one, and called the three indictments against him “ludicrous,” the hareetz.com reported
Netanyahu told the panel of judges that he has read and understands the three indictments against him.
Netanyahu’s lawyer Micha Fettman listed in the court the incomplete and late arrival of the evidence against the prime minister.
Fettman said it will take the defence team at least two or three months to make any preliminary requests to the court as I am blessed to be ignorant of the full extent of the charges, the news portal reported. The prime minister’s legal team asked the court for a six-month delay to fully study the charges.
Netanyahu has denied all the charges, claiming that he is the victim of an “attempted coup by overaggressive police, biased prosecutors and a hostile media”.
A three-judge panel on Wednesday rejected a request for exemption and directed him to appear in person during the reading of the chargesheet. The panel ruled that the reasoning behind Netanyahu’s request for exemption from personal appearance “did not justify such a deviation from the norm”, which requires the presence of the accused at the opening of his or her trial.
Netanyahu on Tuesday requested exemption on the ground that his and his bodyguards’ presence would violate Health Ministry’s coronavirus restrictions.
Defence Minister Benny Gantz said that Prime Minister Netanyahu is innocent until proven guilty, just like every citizen, adding that he is “sure that the justice system will hold a just trial for him”.
“I reiterate that my colleagues and I have complete confidence in the justice system and law enforcement. At this time, perhaps more than ever, we must act as a state and society for unity and reconciliation, for the State of Israel and for all Israeli citizens,” he said.
In Case 1000, Netanyahu is accused of fraud and breach of trust over gifts he allegedly received from Hollywood mogul Arnon Milchan and billionaire James Packer.
According to the indictment, Netanyahu received cigars and champagne from the two over the course of several years. His family members, the indictment states, also demanded and received gifts from the businessmen, and that the prime minister was aware of this fact.
Milchan and Packer’s gifts to the Netanyahus, including the Prime Minister’s wife, Sara, are estimated to have amounted to over 1 million shekels (about USD 280,000), according to police investigations.
Netanyahu has not denied that such gifts were given but has argued that they were “tokens of friendship”.
The Israeli leader’s defence has been that it is allowed to receive gifts from friends . His lawyers have said that he was not aware of the requests made by his family members.
Case 2000 centers around Netanyahu’s alleged desire to receive better coverage in one of the country’s leading dailies, Yedioth Ahronoth.
According to the indictment, at a series of meetings between Netanyahu and the newspaper’s publisher, Arnon Mozes, the two men allegedly discussed a deal calling for the prime minister to try to limit the circulation of rival newspaper, Israel Hayom, which is owned by Netanyahu’s longtime political patron, Sheldon Adelson. Mozes would have given Netanyahu favourable coverage in exchange.
Netanyahu was indicted for fraud and breach of trust in the case. Mozes has been charged with bribery in the matter and will also stand trial.
The Israeli prime minister was caught on tape telling Mozes that he would convince Israel Hayom to limit its circulation which would have benefitted Yediot Ahronoth financially.
Case 4000 alleges that Netanyahu made decisions benefiting media mogul Shaul Elovitch, the controlling shareholder of Bezeq, Israel’s largest telecommunications company, in exchange for positive coverage on Walla News, a news portal owned by Elovitch.
It is considered the most serious of the three cases. As per the indictment in the case, Netanyahu and his wife Sara made consistent requests to alter the coverage on the Walla News website in order to serve the PM’s political interests, and target their opponents.
Netanyahu is not the first leader in the country to face trial but his predecessor, Ehud Olmert, and former president Moshe Katsav stepped down to fight the charges. Both of them were sentenced and served jail time.
Netanyahu’s government was sworn in on May 17, bringing an end to the longest political deadlock in Israel’s history.