Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu pleaded not guilty Monday to corruption charges before he abruptly stood up and left the courtroom — as his trial resumed six weeks before national elections in which he hopes to extend his 12-year rule.
“I confirm the written answer submitted in my name,” Netanyahu, 71, said before a three-judge panel in a Jerusalem court, referring to a document his lawyers submitted last month in which they argued he was not guilty of bribery, breach of trust and fraud.
Netanyahu, the first serving Israeli leader to be charged with a crime, then thanked the court before taking a hasty exit without explanation about 20 minutes into the session, according to Reuters.
In January 2020, he was indicted in three separate, long-running cases involving gifts from wealthy pals and for allegedly seeking regulatory favors for media tycoons in return for favorable coverage.
His lawyers argued Monday against the cases on procedural grounds, saying Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit had not properly approved the investigations in writing.
In the so-called “Case 4000,” the most serious of the three, he faces a charge of bribery for allegedly influencing regulatory decisions that netted hundreds of millions of dollars for a telecom giant in exchange for positive coverage on its subsidiary news site Walla.
The allegations involve his “bribe-based relationship” with Shaul Elovitch, the Bezeq telecom company’s controlling shareholder. Elovitch also faces bribery charges in the case.
In “Case 1000,” where Netanyahu is accused of accepting gifts and benefits worth about $300,000 from business executives — including Israeli-born Hollywood producer Arnon Milchan — in return for political favors, he faces charges of fraud and breach of trust.
And in “Case 2000,” he faces charges of fraud and breach of trust for allegedly agreeing with newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth’s publisher Arnon Mozes to promote a bill to restrict the circulation of the daily’s main competitor, Israel Hayom, in exchange for favorable coverage.
Mozes was charged with bribery in the case.
In recent months, Israelis have held weekly protests calling on Netanyahu to resign over the charges and criticizing his government’s response to the coronavirus pandemic.
Protesters gathered outside the courthouse Monday could be heard inside the room where the hearing was being held.
“We want a new government, a clean government, no corruption” said Sharon Sagy, a protester, “We don’t want Bibi Netanyahu, we want him to go, he needs to go,” she said, using his nickname.
The prime minister’s attorneys called on the court to postpone evidence hearings for several more months, claiming they didn’t have enough time to prepare.
If granted, the hearings would take place after the upcoming elections.
Israeli law requires Cabinet ministers to resign when charged with criminal offenses, but does not specifically address the case of a prime minister under indictment.
Netanyahu has denied any wrongdoing and has dismissed the charges against him as a “witch-hunt” orchestrated by biased law enforcement and media.
With Post wires