JERUSALEM, Feb 23 ― An Israeli court said yesterday it would start hearing witnesses in the corruption trial of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on April 5, after a general election.
Netanyahu, the first Israeli premier to be indicted in office, was formally charged last year over allegations of accepting improper gifts and seeking to trade regulatory favour with media moguls in exchange for positive coverage.
Netanyahu has repeatedly said he is the victim of a witch-hunt, calling the charges against him “fabricated and ludicrous”.
His trial comes as Israel prepares for its fourth general election in less than two years, on March 23.
Netanyahu denied corruption charges during a brief court appearance on February 8.
He said at the time, “I don't think they will rush” to start examining evidence before the polls.
“That would be seen as clear interference in the elections.”
Weekly protests against the 71-year-old premier have rumbled on for months, with some demonstrators focusing on the graft allegations.
The charges against him are divided into three separate cases.
In the most serious, he is accused of bribery, fraud and breach of trust over allegations that he negotiated with telecoms mogul Shaul Elovitch to secure positive coverage on his Walla! news website in exchange for policies benefiting Bezeq.
Elovitch and his wife were also indicted.
Another case concerns allegations that Netanyahu sought a deal with the owner of the Yediot Aharonot newspaper, also for more favourable coverage.
A third involves claims the premier and his family received gifts including luxury cigars, champagne and jewellery worth more than 700,000 shekels (RM860,792) from wealthy individuals in exchange for financial or personal favours.
The prime minister denies wrongdoing.
He would be forced to resign if convicted with all appeals exhausted, but that process is likely to take several years.
Netanyahu's main rival Benny Gantz has branded the veteran PM as serially dishonest.
The two had managed to form a coalition government last April following three inconclusive national polls, but it proved short-lived, acrimoniously collapsing in December.
Netanyahu's lawyers have accused attorney general Avichai Mandelblit ― a Netanyahu appointee ― of mishandling the case. ― AFP