Israel: Benjamin Netanyahu trial begins at Jerusalem court

Israel's prime minister makes history as country’s first sitting leader to go on trial

Benjamin Netanyahu hit out at police and prosecutors on Sunday as he became the first sitting Israeli prime minister to face trial, appearing at a Jerusalem court to face corruption charges.

Before the long-delayed hearing began, Mr Netanyahu was flanked by his mask-wearing ministers as he hit out at “tainted” investigations into his affairs.

He was indicted in November for bribery, breach of trust and fraud after years of investigations into his conduct, with allegations of secret media deals and luxury gifts.

Wearing a blue and white tie and face mask, the prime minister sat in the courtroom beside his lawyer and confirmed he understood the charges. The next court date was not announced.

Outside, a few hundred supporters could be heard chanting and singing as they waved Israeli flags and held up a banner bearing Mr Netanyahu's portrait.

Standing behind a barrier, demonstrators also carried an image of Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit dressed as a prisoner.

Israeli demonstrators, wearing protective masks amid the COVID-19 pandemic, carry placards during a demonstration against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in front of his residence in Jerusalem, on May 17 2020, as Israel's parliament swore in a new unity government. After more than 500 days without a stable government and three inconclusive elections, lawmakers in the 120-seat parliament approved a three-year coalition, with 73 voting for and 46 against. One member was absent. The new government was set to confront serious crises in its first weeks, including the economic devastation wrought by the coronavirus and a looming battle over Israel's possible annexation of large parts of the occupied West Bank. / AFP / MENAHEM KAHANA

Mr Mandelblit reportedly made a police complaint after receiving threats.

A court spokesman would not comment on whether judges in Mr Netanyahu's case have been given extra security.

Demonstrations were also held near the prime minister’s Jerusalem residence, where his opponents were separated from a crowd of his supporters by police.

Mr Netanyahu’s day in court followed a delay of more than two months, after his justice minister ordered a halt to most proceedings because of coronavirus and a last-minute attempt by the prime minister to be allowed to stay at home.

On Wednesday, a court rejected Mr Netanyahu's lawyers’ argument that his attendance was unnecessary, while his bodyguards’ presence would be costly for the state and risked breaching the government’s coronavirus rules.

Measures to control the pandemic meant the number of people at the hearing was restricted, while proceedings were streamed within the courthouse and the wearing of masks was compulsory.

Mr Netanyahu said he wanted proceedings to be broadcast in future.

Three separate cases have been brought against him.

One is a bribery charge over a deal he allegedly struck for positive coverage from the Walla news website.

He took regulatory steps to favour telecoms firm Bezeq, whose majority shareholder, Saul Elovitch owns Walla, prosecutors said.

Champagne, cigars and other items are central to the case in which Mr Netanyahu and his wife Sara allegedly received about $200,000 worth of gifts from Hollywood mogul Arnon Milchan, an Israeli, and Australian billionaire James Packer.

(FILES) A file photo taken on May 09, 2020 shows an Israeli protester, wearing a protective mask bearing the slogan "Crime Minister" and standing with others distanced two metres apart from each other due to the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic, attending a demonstration in Rabin Square in the Israeli coastal city of Tel Aviv, calling for "a quality government" before the formation of a new government later in the week amid negotiations between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his ex-rival Benny Gantz. A new page in Israeli history opens Sunday as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu becomes the first sitting premier to face criminal charges, accused of a string of corruption allegations he denies. After more than 500 days of electoral deadlock in which he fought for his political survival Netanyahu is to take his seat in the Jerusalem District Court for a new battle -- to stay out of prison and avoid a stain on his legacy. / AFP / JACK GUEZ

In the third case, Mr Netanyahu is alleged to have sought positive coverage from the Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper in exchange for tabling legislation that would damage a rival outlet.

Mr Netanyahu, who is facing charges of fraud and breach of trust in all three cases, denies wrongdoing and claims he is the victim of a witch-hunt.

He faces up to 10 years in prison if convicted of bribery, while the other charges carry a sentence of up to three years.

But court proceedings could take years and Mr Netanyahu, 70, is not obliged to step down from office until all appeals have been exhausted.

The start of his trial follows a tumultuous few months for the prime minister, who in January withdrew a request for parliamentary immunity after discovering he lacked the necessary support.

Weeks later, his Likud party went on to clinch the most seats in March’s election, the third in less than a year, but without the numbers required to form a coalition.

The task was given to his rival, Benny Gantz.

Despite the former army chief vowing not to serve alongside an indicted Mr Netanyahu, the upheaval caused by coronavirus led the incumbent to convince his challenger to co-operate.

The new government was sworn in a week ago.

Mr Netanyahu will stay on as Israel’s longest-serving leader, working for 18 months as prime minister before handing the reins to Mr Gantz for the same period.