Netanyahu heads to court as first sitting Israeli PM on trial

Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu wears a face mask as he stands inside the court room Credit: Ronen Zvulun/Pool Photo via AP

Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu launched a tirade against the nation’s justice system as he arrived at court for the start of his corruption trial, accusing police and prosecutors of conspiring to “depose” him.

Netanyahu’s comments opened what is sure to be a tumultuous period for Israel as he becomes the country’s first sitting prime minister ever to go on trial.

Netanyahu faces charges of fraud, breach of trust, and accepting bribes in a series of corruption cases stemming from ties to wealthy friends.

Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, attends court Credit: Ronen Zvulun/Pool Photo via AP

He is accused of accepting lavish gifts and offering to grant favours to powerful media moguls in exchange for favourable coverage of him and his family.

He denies the charges.

Netanyahu entered the Jerusalem courtroom wearing a blue surgical mask, in line with public health restriction due to the coronavirus pandemic. He stood and talked to his lawyer and lawyers for other defendants, refusing to sit until TV cameras left the room.

As the proceedings began, the lawyers and judges also wore masks, with the three-judge panel sitting behind a glass divider.

His lawyers said they would need two to three months to respond to the arraignment, and said they needed additional funds to add to their defence’s legal team.

Netanyahu’s convoy arrives at Jerusalem district court Credit: Sebastian Scheiner/AP

When he arrived at the courthouse, Netanyahu revived his claims that he is the victim of a deep state-type conspiracy by media, police, prosecutors and judges out to oust 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.

He said police and prosecutors had conspired to “tailor” a case against him, and said the evidence was “contaminated” and exaggerated. He called for the court proceedings to be broadcast live on TV to ensure “full transparency”.

“While the media continues to deal with nonsense, with these false, trumped-up cases, I will continue to lead the state of Israel and deal with issues that really matter to you,” he said, including to resuscitate the economy and “continue to save the lives of thousands of Israelis ahead of the possibility of a second wave of coronavirus.”

Critics have said that Netanyahu’s “deep state” arguments have undermined Israel’s court system and risk deeper damage to the country’s democratic institutions.

Avi Nissenkorn, the country’s new justice minister, defended the legal system just before Netanyahu arrived in court.

Israel “is blessed with a quality justice system without bias,” Mr Nissenkorn wrote on Twitter. “I have no doubt that the judicial process will be managed in a matter-of-fact and fair fashion.”

Netanyahu was forced to attend Sunday’s hearing at the Jerusalem district court, after his request to have his lawyers represent him instead was rejected.

Protesters wave flags and banners outside Netanyahu’s residence in Jerusalem Credit: Ariel Schalit/AP

The dramatic scene came just days after the long-serving leader swore in his new government, breaking more than a year of political stalemate following three inconclusive elections.

Netanyahu held his first Cabinet meeting with the new government just hours before heading to court.

Neither he nor any of his ministers addressed the looming trial but the country’s outgoing religious affairs minister wished Netanyahu that “God will bring the truth out” at his trial.

Netanyahu and his allies have spent months lashing out the country’s law enforcement system, and the charges against him have deeply divided the nation.

Ahead of the trial, two sets of protests and counter-protests gathered outside the courthouse and the prime minister’s official residence in Jerusalem.

Several of Netanyahu’s Likud Cabinet ministers, including the newly appointed internal security minister who oversees the police, came to the court to back him.

Netanyahu’s court appearance on Sunday caps a three-year investigation.

It also comes after more than a year of political turmoil, with three inconclusive elections finally ending last month when the Israeli leader and his main rival, former army chief Benny Gantz, came to a power-sharing deal.

As part of their power-sharing deal, Netanyahu will remain prime minister for the next 18 months, and alternative prime minister for the 18 months after, and will not be legally required to step down during what is expected to be a lengthy trial.

In a tweet, Mr Gantz said he was sure Netanyahu will receive a fair trial.

“I repeat and emphasise that my colleagues and I have full faith in the justice system and law enforcement,” he said.