JERUSALEM • Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu professed his innocence at the start of his corruption trial yesterday, saying he was being framed, in the country’s first criminal prosecution of a serving premier.
Flanked by a clutch of Cabinet ministers from his right-wing Likud party, and speaking forcefully, Netanyahu, 70, appealed to public opinion, addressing television cameras before taking his seat on the defendants’ bench.
“These investigations were tainted and stitched-up from the first moment,” the premier said about the charges of bribery, breach of trust and fraud at the centre of three graft cases against him.
Outside the courthouse, hundreds of his supporters and opponents held noisy demonstrations. Chants of “Bibi, king of Israel” from Netanyahu faithful using his nickname echoed through the court building.
In his hallway appearance, Netanyahu dubbed prosecutors and police the “Just Not Bibi Gang”, reasserting that he was a victim of a political witch-hunt abetted by a left-wing media to oust him.
He said he was standing tall with his head held high and that he would continue to lead the country, as he embarked on his battle to stay out of prison and avoid a stain on his legacy.
Netanyahu, Israel’s longest-serving leader, has now been in office for more than 11 straight years, plus three years in the 1990s.
He was indicted in November in cases involving gifts from millionaire friends and for allegedly seeking favours for media tycoons in return for favourable coverage.
Perhaps most serious of all is the claim that Netanyahu offered media mogul Shaul Elovitch regulatory changes worth millions of dollars to his telecom giant Bezeq in exchange for favourable reporting on the Walla! news website.
The allegation that Netanyahu “is getting only media coverage” rather than cash is “unprecedented”, said Dr Amir Fuchs, a researcher at the Israel Democracy Institute. In the Bezeq case, Dr Fuchs argued, Netanyahu is accused of doing far more than seek flattering write-ups.
“It was actually complete editorial control of this site even on the specifics of which posts to make, or which pictures to make.”
After months of police questioning, Attorney-General Avichai Mandelblit in January filed charges against Netanyahu. Many commentators considered this the premier’s political death warrant.
But Netanyahu, who has denied all the accusations, retained the Likud leadership and, after three inconclusive general elections, managed to hammer out a power-sharing deal with his chief rival Benny Gantz. Under the agreement, Netanyahu will continue to lead the government for 18 months before handing over the premiership to Mr Gantz.
Under Israeli law, a sitting prime minister does not have automatic immunity from prosecution but also is not obliged to resign when charged, only when convicted and after all avenues of appeal have been exhausted.
Hebrew University of Jerusalem professor of law Yuval Shany argues that there is “a basic incompatibility” between Netanyahu’s role as head of the government and his status as a criminal defendant.
The premier will be “fighting very aggressively and maybe effectively to weaken the government authorities that are prosecuting him”, Prof Shany said.
“There is a very serious conflict of interest situation,” he added.
At any time before the verdict, Israeli law allows Netanyahu to amend his plea in exchange for lesser or fewer charges.
In the courtroom yesterday, one of the judges asked Netanyahu whether he had read and understood the indictment. The prime minister then stood up and replied: “Yes, your Honour.”