Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appeared in a Jerusalem courtroom Monday to respond formally to corruption charges just weeks before national elections in which he hopes to extend his 12-year rule.
Netanyahu was indicted last year for fraud, breach of trust and accepting bribes in three separate cases. In recent months, Israelis have held weekly protests calling on him to resign over the charges and criticizing his government's response to the coronavirus crisis. Protesters gathered outside the courthouse could be heard inside the room where the hearing was being held.
He 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 latest hearing was postponed last month due to lockdown restrictions on public gatherings.
Israel's longest serving leader is also the first sitting prime minister to go on trial for corruption. Israeli law requires Cabinet ministers to resign when charged with criminal offenses, but does not specifically address the case of a prime minister under indictment.
Netanyahu has denied any wrongdoing and has dismissed the charges against him as a witch-hunt orchestrated by biased law enforcement and media. He has refused to step down and has used his office as a bully pulpit against critics and the criminal justice system.
At the start of his trial last May, Netanyahu was flanked by a cohort of Likud party allies as he railed against the media, police, judges and prosecutors. He said the trial aimed to "depose a strong, right-wing prime minister, and thus remove the nationalist camp from the leadership of the country for many years.
Netanyahu has served as Israel's prime minister since 2009, and in the past two years has managed to hang onto power through three tumultuous, deadlocked elections. His flimsy ruling coalition collapsed in December, and he now faces a major battle for reelection in March 23 parliamentary elections.
Netanyahu hopes to campaign on having pulled the country out of the pandemic through one of the world's most successful vaccination campaigns. He boasts of having personally secured millions of doses from major drug makers, allowing Israel to vaccinated more than a third of its population of 9.3 million. He hopes to vaccinate the entire adult population by late March.
But his government has faced heavy criticism for other aspects of its response to the crisis. The country is only now starting to emerge from its third nationwide lockdown, and the closures have sent unemployment skyrocketing.
An emergency government formed last May to combat the coronavirus outbreak has been mired in bickering. The country's leaders have struggled to enact consistent policies and repeatedly accused each other of playing politics with the pandemic. Israel has meanwhile reported nearly 700,000 cases since the outbreak began, including 5,121 deaths.
(Only the headline and picture of this report may have been reworked by the Business Standard staff; the rest of the content is auto-generated from a syndicated feed.)