Israel's Netanyahu enters plea in court in corruption trial

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Benjamin Netanyahu in court (08/01/21)Image source, Reuters
Image caption,
Mr Netanyahu has consistently denied wrongdoing

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has denied corruption charges in court for the first time as his trial resumes in Jerusalem.

Mr Netanyahu entered his plea at the hearing which had been previously postponed because of the pandemic.

He is the first serving Israeli prime minister to go on trial, which takes place just a month before elections.

Mr Netanyahu, 71, is accused of bribery, fraud and breach of trust in three separate cases.

Hundreds of protesters gathered outside the district courthouse ahead of the prime minister's brief appearance on Monday morning, making noise, waving banners and calling for him to resign.

Image source, Reuters
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Anti-Netanyahu protesters demonstrated outside the court

Mr Netanyahu had urged supporters not to come to court because of the threat of coronavirus.

The prime minister arrived for the hearing wearing a black protective mask. Inside the courtroom he rose to reject the charges, before departing within 45 minutes while his lawyers continued deliberations.

What is Benjamin Netanyahu accused of?

Mr Netanyahu has been indicted in three cases, known as 1,000, 2,000 and 4,000:

  • Case 1,000 - Fraud and breach of trust: he is accused of receiving gifts - mainly cigars and bottles of champagne - from powerful businessmen in exchange for favours
  • Case 2,000 - Fraud and breach of trust: Mr Netanyahu is accused of offering to help improve the circulation of Israeli newspaper Yediot Ahronot in exchange for positive coverage
  • Case 4,000 - Bribery, fraud and breach of trust: as PM and minister of communications at the time of the alleged offence, Mr Netanyahu is accused of promoting regulatory decisions favourable to the controlling shareholder in the Bezeq telecom giant, Shaul Elovitch, in exchange for positive coverage by Mr Elovitch's Walla news site
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November 2019 - Benjamin Netanyahu rails against corruption charges

Mr Netanyahu has consistently denied all the charges against him, branding them a "witch-hunt" by political opponents, and has vowed to clear his name.

How can the PM serve and stand trial at the same time?

According to Israeli law, a leader charged with a crime is not required to resign. But there is no precedent.

A former prime minister, Ehud Olmert, stepped down as party leader when he was under investigation for corruption in 2008 but technically remained prime minister until elections the following year - polls which brought Benjamin Netanyahu to power.

What does the trial mean for the country?

In short, a serving prime minister occupying the most powerful office in the land simultaneously trying to clear his name and avoid jail-time.

It comes just six weeks before Israelis go to the polls in what is expected to be a close-fought election.

Image source, Getty Images
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Mr Netanyahu will be on trial while Israel goes to the polls next month

While Mr Netanyahu's own Likud party has stood behind him, political opponents have tried to maximise the prime minister's legal difficulties, claiming he is unfit to hold office.

Mr Netanyahu has though previously successfully fought three elections since criminal investigations into him began in 2016.

Even if he is convicted and is still in power, Mr Netanyahu will not be required to resign unless and until any appeals are exhausted - which could, in theory, be many months or years into the future.

In Ehud Olmert's case, the former prime minister went on trial in 2009 and after he was convicted only began serving his sentence in 2016 due to the long legal process.