Netanyahu corruption trial set to open on March 17, two weeks after election
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Netanyahu corruption trial set to open on March 17, two weeks after election

Jerusalem District Court announces date of first hearing for premier, which will come as parties scramble to form coalition

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during a Likud faction meeting at the Knesset in Jerusalem on February 9, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during a Likud faction meeting at the Knesset in Jerusalem on February 9, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s corruption trial will open just two weeks after Israelis head to the ballot box for the third time in under a year.

The Justice Ministry on Tuesday announced that the trial will begin on March 17 at 3 p.m.

On January 28, Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit filed indictments against Netanyahu with the Jerusalem District Court, charging the premier with fraud and breach of trust in Cases 1000 and 2000, and bribery, fraud and breach of trust in Case 4000. It marked the first time in Israel’s history that a serving prime minister will face criminal charges.

Earlier this month, Jerusalem District Court president Aharon Farkash revealed the members of the three-judge panel that will hear Netanyahu’s case.

Jerusalem District Court Judge Rivka Friedman-Feldman. (Israeli Judicial Authority)

The panel will consist of chairwoman Rivka Friedman-Feldman along with justices Moshe Bar-Am and Oded Shaham. All three have served on the Jerusalem District Court since 2012.

Friedman-Feldman was previously involved in the trial of former prime minister Ehud Olmert when she was a member of a similar three-judge panel that in 2014 overturned his acquittal in a bribery case and sentenced him to eight months in prison.

Olmert was sentenced to a total of 27 months for convictions in three corruption trials, of which he eventually served 16 months until his release in 2017. Olmert had resigned as prime minister before the trials started.

The national election will be held on March 2. Netanyahu will be fighting for his political survival, facing a tough challenge from rival Blue and White leader Benny Gantz, though neither has a clear path to forming a majority coalition without the other, according to recent polls.

Despite the looming trial, Netanyahu’s right-wing and religious allies reaffirmed their loyalty to the long-serving prime minister earlier this week, vowing they would recommend only him for premier.

Netanyahu’s trial will interrupt political jockeying to form a coalition following the election.

The January filing of charges came hours after Netanyahu announced that he was withdrawing his request for parliamentary immunity from the pending indictment in the corruption cases against him.

The prime minister has repeatedly denied any wrongdoing in all three cases, and has alleged that the investigations against him are a “witch hunt” involving the left, the media and the police relentlessly pressuring a “weak” attorney general.

Case 1000 involves accusations that Netanyahu received gifts and benefits from billionaire benefactors including Israeli-born Hollywood producer Arnon Milchan in exchange for favors. In this case, Mandelblit charged Netanyahu with fraud and breach of trust — the latter being a somewhat murkily defined offense relating to an official violating the trust the public has placed in him.

In Case 2000, involving accusations Netanyahu agreed with Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper publisher Arnon Mozes to weaken the circulation of a rival daily in return for more favorable coverage from Yedioth, Mandelblit charged the premier with fraud and breach of trust, while Mozes will be charged with bribery.

In Case 4000, widely seen as the most serious against the premier, Netanyahu stands accused of having advanced regulatory decisions that benefited Shaul Elovitch, the controlling shareholder in the Bezeq telecom giant, in exchange for positive coverage from the Elovitch-owned Walla news site. In that case Mandelblit is charging Netanyahu and Elovitch with bribery.

The Jerusalem District Court seen on January 28, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)
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