Benjamin Netanyahu Pleads Not Responsible in Israel Corruption Trial

JERUSALEM – Few heads of state or government in the world have ever stood in court, let alone run for re-election during a pandemic.

But on Monday morning – with a parliamentary election in a few weeks’ time and an early decision on the early reopening of the education system – Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was forced to turn his attention from state affairs and instead participate in the resumption of his trial on allegations of corruption.

The hearing was largely administrative and Mr. Netanyahu spoke only briefly to plead his innocence.

“I confirm the answer submitted on my behalf,” said the prime minister, referring to a written request his lawyers had made a few weeks ago.

Mr. Netanyahu spent less than half an hour in the courtroom before leaving his lawyers to argue with the three judges over procedural issues. However, this was the first time since the trial began last May that Mr Netanyahu had spoken in court and only the second time he had been present in person.

And the simple drama of a prime minister sitting in the dock has sparked a debate about the health of Israeli democracy and the Israeli judicial system.

For some, the fact that an Israeli prime minister can be tried in an Israeli court is strong evidence of the independence and equality of justice before the law. Others fear, however, that the discourse surrounding the trial, which Mr Netanyahu himself portrayed as a conspiracy by unelected bureaucrats to undermine the will of the people, has undermined public confidence in the judicial system.

On Monday, the case’s attorney general, Liat Ben-Ari, arrived in court with a security detail after threatening her security.

Mr. Netanyahu faces multiple charges. In one case, he is accused of providing political favors to two businessmen in exchange for gifts worth approximately $ 200,000, including cigars and champagne. In other cases, he allegedly sought cheap media coverage from major news agencies in exchange for regulatory changes that benefited their owners.

If convicted, Mr. Netanyahu could be imprisoned for several years, but a sentence is not expected for several months, if not years. The process has already been delayed several times by coronavirus restrictions, although the process may accelerate in the coming weeks as the court begins to hear from prosecutor’s witnesses.

In the short term, many analysts believe the process may not have much of an impact on the March 23 election result. Most voters formed an opinion a long time ago because the process and investigation that led to it have dragged on for years, said Dahlia Scheindlin, an Israeli political analyst and pollster.

“Could opening the trial really change someone’s mind?” Mrs. Scheindlin said. “So far I don’t really see it.”

“None of this is new – people have had years to consider this,” she added.

To his critics, the simple fact that Mr. Netanyahu had chosen not to resign despite being distracted by complicated criminal proceedings was already evidence of dangerous selfishness.

Many of the government’s failures during the pandemic were “all because of the trial,” the Black Flags, an opposition movement that led protests against Mr. Netanyahu that were posted on Twitter Monday morning. “His personal survival is more important to him than the survival of the state.”

But for Mr. Netanyahu’s supporters, the trial is evidence of a profound conspiracy against him, and little that happens during the hearings will change their minds.

“Today marks another milestone in the attempted political assassination known as the Netanyahu cases,” wrote Osnat Mark, a Netanyahu party lawmaker. “With incredible timing, the prosecution is trying to speed up the hearing of prosecution witnesses near the election as a political tool. The public did not and will not buy it at the hearing or the filing of the indictments near the election. “

Myra Noveck and Irit Pazner Garshowitz contributed to the reporting.

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