A defiant Israeli prime minister has appeared in court for the first day of his corruption trial claiming that he is the victim of a conspiracy by media, police, prosecutors and judges to oust him.
In a televised statement made just before he entered the courtroom, Benjamin Netanyahu accused police and prosecutors of conspiring to “depose” him.
“The objective is to depose a strong, right-wing prime minister, and thus remove the nationalist camp from the leadership of the country for many years,” he said.
It was the opening day of a trial which could last years and marks a historic moment for Israel.
Mr Netanyahu is the first sitting Israeli leader ever to go on trial. He is accused of fraud and breach of trust in two cases and bribery, fraud and breach of trust in a third case. He denies all the charges.
The three cases against him – Case 1000, Case 2000 and Case 4000 – centre around his relationships with businessmen, media tycoons and a leading Israeli telecoms firm.
Since the charges were first brought against him by police investigators in December 2018, he has sought to avoid prosecution and the spectacle of appearing in the dock, calling the whole process an “attempted coup”.
“They are not after the truth. They are after me,” he said. “[It is a] terror attack against Israeli democracy.”
When the charges were formally announced last year, Israel’s Attorney General said he brought them “with a heavy heart – but wholeheartedly”.
“It is not an issue of left wing or right. Enforcing the law isn’t a matter of choice,” Avichai Mandelblit said.
An attempt by Mr Netanyahu to secure parliamentary immunity from prosecution last year failed. The trial was then delayed by two months in March because of coronavirus restrictions.
Last week he argued, unsuccessfully, that attending today was unnecessary, costly and would violate social distancing rules.
The trial has hung over him through three election campaigns, none of which he managed to win outright.
This month the country’s political deadlock was finally broken with the formation of a coalition government deal in which his political rival, Benny Gantz, will take over as Prime Minister in 18 months’ time.
By law, a sitting Prime Minister does not have to resign until a final conviction and all appeals have been exhausted and this trial could go on for years. There are 333 prosecution witnesses.
A clause in the coalition agreement means even after Mr Netanyahu hands over power to Mr Gantz in 18 months, he is still not required to resign while on trial because of his position as the “alternate” Prime Minister.
In the courtroom on the first day, Mr Netanyahu and his co-defendants listened to charges against them. Defendants can enter plea bargain at any point before verdict.
Speaking outside court, Anshel Pfeffer, author of Bibi: The Turbulent Life and Times of Benjamin Netanyahu, told Sky News: “This is certainly a pivotal moment in his life.
‘Magician’ Netanyahu has turned into a ‘confidence trickster’
“For four years, the investigation has been going on very slowly and finally we have reached the moment when he actually has to sit down in court,” Mr Pfeffer said.
“We saw a very telling moment as he went in. For 50 minutes it was the judges and the prosecutors who were in charge of the proceedings. This was a very different Netanyahu sitting on his own on the defendants’ bench doing what he was told. It was a metamorphosis for Netanyahu.”
As a renowned and extraordinary political survivor, many expect Mr Netanyahu, “the magician”, to conjure up some surprises.
His lawyers complained to the judges that the investigation documents were not presented to them in time. The same complaint was made by the lawyers of the other defendants.
🇮🇱 History will be made in Israel today as Prime Minister @netanyahu walks into Jerusalem’s District Court to become the country’s first sitting leader to go on trial.
3 years of investigations, 3 separate cases & 3 elections. A witch-hunt says the PM; an attempted coup. pic.twitter.com/vvSI0DOTkG
— Mark Stone (@Stone_SkyNews) May 24, 2020
The three cases against Mr Netanyahu are:
Case 1000 – The Gifts Affair: Fraud & breach of trust. It is alleged that Mr Netanyahu received luxury goods including champagne and cigars totalling the equivalent of £162,000 from two businessmen over a continuous period amounting to a “supply channel”. It is alleged that the prime minister “acted for the benefit” of businessmen. He insists gifts were “tokens of friendship” and that he did not act inappropriately.
Case 2000 – The Media Affair: Fraud & breach of trust. It is alleged that Mr Netanyahu held several meetings with Arnon Mozes, controlling shareholder of the Yedioth Ahronoth media group. It is claimed that they discussed promoting their common interests: favourable coverage in return for restrictions of rival paper. Both men deny wrongdoing.
Case 4000 – The Bezeq Affair: Bribary, fraud & breach of trust. It is alleged that there was a “reciprocal arrangement” between Mr Netanyahu and Shaul Elovitch, controlling shareholder in Bezeq, a leading Israeli telecoms firm. It is alleged that the prime minister was involved in the promotion of regulatory decisions that favoured Bezeq.
Proceedings will continue on 19 July in a trial which could last several years.