The long-awaited corruption trial of Benjamin Netanyahu is
due to open in Jerusalem, where he will become the first serving Israeli prime
minister to face criminal prosecution.
Netanyahu is required to appear for Sunday's session in
Jerusalem District Court, a week after he was sworn in to a record fifth term
as head of a unity government, ending more than a year of political deadlock in
the wake of three inconclusive elections.
Netanyahu has been charged with fraud, breach of trust and
accepting bribes in a series of cases. He is accused of accepting expensive
gifts, such as cartons of champagne and cigars, from wealthy friends and
offering favours to media moguls in exchange for favourable news coverage of
him and his family.
In the most serious case, he is accused of promoting
legislation that delivered hundreds of millions of dollars of profits to the
owner of a major telecom company while wielding behind-the-scenes editorial
influence over the firm's popular news website.
Netanyahu, who heads the right-wing Likud party, denies all
charges. He has cast his prosecution as a left-wing witch-hunt meant to
overthrow a popular right-wing leader.
As prime minister, Netanyahu is under no legal obligation to
resign and he has said his court battle will not affect his ability to do his
A three-judge panel, which will hear the prime minister's
case, turned down on Wednesday his request to stay away from the opening
In asking to be excused, Netanyahu called the event a
formality and argued that bringing his contingent of bodyguards would waste
public funds and make it hard to comply with physical distancing rules.
Some critics said Netanyahu was trying to avoid the optics
of a prime minister sitting in the defendant's dock. Turning down his request,
the court said it was important for justice to be seen to be done.
Political deadlock resolved
After three bruising elections over the past year, Netanyahu
was sworn into office this week for a fourth consecutive term.
All three elections were seen as referendums on his fitness
for office, and all ended in deadlock. After the most recent vote in March, his
rival, Benny Gantz, appeared to have mustered enough support in Parliament to
pass legislation that would have disqualified Netanyahu from serving as prime
minister while under indictment.
However, in a stunning turnaround, Gantz, citing fears of a
fourth expensive election and the coronavirus pandemic, agreed to shelve the
legislation and instead form a power-sharing government with Netanyahu.
The Supreme Court cleared the way for Netanyahu to remain in
power. In a key ruling, it said an indicted politician may serve as prime
minister - even though Israeli law requires all other office-holders to resign
if charged with a crime.
Yuval Shany, professor of law at the Hebrew University of
Jerusalem, argued that there is "a basic incompatibility" between
Netanyahu's role as head of the government and his status as a criminal
In the latter role, Shany said, the prime minister would be
"fighting very aggressively and maybe effectively to weaken the government
authorities that are prosecuting him".
"There is a very serious conflict of interest
situation," he told AFP news agency.
Under their deal, Netanyahu was forced to yield some powers
to Gantz, with each wielding a veto over most key decisions. Gantz will hold
the title of "alternate prime minister," and after 18 months, they
will swap jobs.
Six years ago, former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was found
guilty of bribe-taking and served 16 months in jail. His trial took place after
his 2006-2009 term in office.