JERUSALEM — Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Sunday launched a tirade against the nation’s justice system as his long-awaited corruption trial got underway, 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. Hundreds of protesters calling him the “crime minister” demonstrated outside his official residence, while hundreds of supporters, including leading members of his Likud party, rallied in support of him at the courthouse.
Netanyahu faces charges of fraud, breach of trust and accepting bribes in a series of corruption cases stemming from ties to wealthy friends. He is accused of accepting lavish gifts and offering to grant favors to powerful media moguls in exchange for favorable coverage of him and his family. He denies the charges, which come after years of scandals swirling around the family.
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 attorneys 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. In a hint of what could lie ahead, 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 defense’s legal team.
Netanyahu sat silently and did not speak during the one-hour session. He will not be required to attend future hearings during a case that legal analysts expect to stretch over several years.
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 arguments have undermined Israel’s court system and risk deeper damage to the country’s democratic institutions.
Netanyahu’s fitness for office was the key issue in three inconclusive elections over the past year. After vowing never to sit with an indicted prime minister, Netanyahu’s challenger, Benny Gantz, agreed in March to form a power-sharing coalition with his rival.
In a tweet, Gantz said he was sure Netanyahu will receive a fair trial.
“I repeat and emphasize that my colleagues and I have full faith in the justice system and law enforcement,” he said.
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.
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. Dozens of Netanyahu supporters outside the court in east Jerusalem wore masks with the prime minister’s face and held posters lambasting the attorney general who indicted him.
“We won’t allow an image of Netanyahu being humiliated,” said Ran Carmi Buzaglo, one of the protesters. “The only reason that they forced him to come here, even though the law allows him to be absent, is to show an image of him in the defendant’s chair.”
Across town, several hundred anti-Netanyahu demonstrators gathered outside his residence wearing face masks and t-shirts with the words “crime minister” and bearing posters calling for his resignation. They faced off across police barricades with the prime minister’s backers.
Several of Netanyahu’s Likud Cabinet ministers, including the newly appointed internal security minister who overseas the police, came to the court to back him.
Opposition leader Yair Lapid accused them of fomenting violence and trying to intimidate the judges. “Netanyahu is trying to drag us into a civil war to save himself from trial,” he told the Ynet website.
Netanyahu’s court appearance Sunday caps a three-year investigation. It also comes after more than a year of political turmoil, with three inconclusive elections — each seen as a referendum on Netanyahu — finally ending last month with the power-sharing deal with Gantz.
As part of their 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.
Netanyahu’s proceedings were supposed to begin in March, but were delayed by his justice minister who issued restrictions on the courts amid the coronavirus crisis.
Associated Press writer Ilan Ben Zion contributed to this report.