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Israel’s Netanyahu walks out on his own corruption trial

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu pleaded not guilty on Feb. 8 to corruption charges, six weeks before voters head to the polls. (Video: Reuters)

TEL AVIV — Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told judges in a Jerusalem court on Monday that he is innocent of corruption charges before abruptly standing, saying "thank you very much" and leaving with his motorcade.

Netanyahu quit the courtroom some 20 minutes after the start of Monday morning’s hearing, which continued on without him. The sessions kick-started the second phase of a precedent-setting legal procedure, which, for the first time, involves the indictment of an Israeli prime minister while still in office and campaigning for elections in the coming weeks — the fourth in two years.

Gayil Talshir, a political scientist at Hebrew University of Jerusalem, said the Jerusalem District Courtroom where the trial is taking place is a “humiliating” departure for Netanyahu’s usual setting “in front of the flag of Israel, and in a position of power.”

“But he came by himself, without family members or minister loyalists. He is trying to belittle the situation,” she said.

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On Sunday, Netanyahu posted a video to his Facebook page instructing his supporters not to demonstrate outside the heavily guarded Jerusalem courtroom, saying that it was a health risk as coronavirus cases continue to soar and because “everyone already sees that the witch-hunt against me is crumbling, everyone understands that this is a transparent attempt to overthrow a strong prime minister from the Right.”

Only one pro-Netanyahu demonstrator arrived to express support on Monday morning, across from some 200 anti-Netanyahu protesters hoisting signs reading “Crime Minister” and calling on him to resign.

Since the trial formally began last May, Netanyahu has maintained his innocence and decried the case against him as part of a politically motivated conspiracy to oust him from power.

Netanyahu was originally due in court on Jan. 13 to formally respond to the charges, but the hearing was delayed by his decision to implement a month-long, nationwide coronavirus lockdown amid soaring infection rates. Critics said that Netanyahu had ignored suggestions in the past by health officials to lock down cities with high infection rates and that this time it was a political maneuver to delay the trial.

Netanyahu’s attorney on Monday attempted to defer the proceedings further on the claims of technicalities that constituted a “violation of basic law,” an argument the judges dismissed.

While his attorney spoke, Netanyahu jotted notes on a yellow legal pad, coughed several times into his black mask, removed his mask to drink water and crossed his arms across his chest.

He spoke only twice: to confirm his attorneys’ response to the charges and then, after about 20 minutes, to say “thank you very much” to the courtroom before departing with his motorcade.

In recent days, Netanyahu has been uncharacteristically quiet on his trial, though his political allies have taken to social media and to the press to advocate prolonging the trial and to avoid its “politicization.”

Knesset Speaker Yariv Lavin, a Netanyahu supporter, on Sunday called on the court to postpone Monday’s hearing until after the March 23 elections, saying that going forward with the schedule would amount to the judicial system “lending a hand to blatant meddling in the elections.”

In Israel Hayom, a free newspaper and unofficial mouthpiece for Netanyahu, journalist Amnon Lord called the trial a “pseudo-legal performance for public consumption” and added that “whatever happens, the State Attorney’s Office is ready with a cast of hundreds, a list of 338 witnesses, enough people to remake ‘Ben Hur.’ ”

Netanyahu was charged with bribery, fraud and breach of trust in “Case 4000,” in which he is accused of granting illegal favors to a telecom giant and news website owner in exchange for positive coverage of the prime minister and his family.

Netanyahu also faces charges of fraud and breach of trust in “Case 1000,” in which he is suspected of illicitly accepting about $200,000 in cigars, champagne and other gifts from the Hollywood-based Israeli movie mogul Arnon Milchan and from Australian billionaire magnate James Packer.

Netanyahu’s Likud still maintains a lead in the most recently published opinion polls; however, he will have to contend with new rivals from the right, as well as accusations that he has been mishandling the public health crisis and the economic consequences of the pandemic, to avoid standing trial.

While Israel, which has a population of about 9 million, is among the leaders in administering vaccines, it continues to record high numbers of deaths and infection rates and has the highest number of lockdown days in the world.

“This has been a difficult day for everyone, a difficult day for the State of Israel,” said Gideon Saar, a right-wing politician challenging Netanyahu, in response to the trial. “The judicial process should be conducted without political intervention and any kind of political pressure.”

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