Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu lambasted Israel’s justice system for bringing “fabricated and ludicrous” charges against him as he became the first serving Israeli prime minister to face criminal prosecution.
The embattled leader arrived at a court in occupied East Jerusalem on Sunday to face a series of corruption charges. “The objective is to topple a strong prime minister from the rightist camp and thus to remove the right-wing from leadership for many years,” he said in a televised statement to reporters at Jerusalem District Court.
Netanyahu, flanked by aides and officials wearing face masks to prevent coronavirus infection, said he was “standing tall” with his “head held high” and would continue to lead the country.
Hundreds of people took part in rival protests in favour of Netanyahu and against him, shortly before his appearance at the court.
The hearing lasted an hour and Netanyahu spoke only to confirm his identity. The court excused Netanyahu from appearing in person at the next hearing, set for July 19. Israeli analysts say the trial could last months or even years.
The prime minister has been charged with fraud, breach of trust and accepting bribes in a series of cases. He is accused of accepting expensive gifts, such as cartons of champagne and cigars, from wealthy friends and offering favours to media moguls in exchange for favourable news coverage of him and his family.
In the most serious case, he is accused of promoting legislation that delivered hundreds of millions of dollars of profits to the owner of a major telecom company while wielding behind-the-scenes editorial influence over the firm’s popular news website.
Netanyahu, who heads the right-wing Likud party, denies all charges. He has cast his prosecution as a left-wing witch-hunt meant to overthrow a popular right-wing leader.
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.
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 Netanyahu’s arguments have undermined Israel’s court system and risk deeper damage its democratic institutions.