JERUSALEM: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Sunday launched a tirade against the nation's justice system as he arrived to court for the start of his corruption trial, 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.
As 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.
He called the case “an attempt to eliminate the will of the people” and an “attempt to depose a strong right-wing leader.”
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.”
“I stand before you with a straight back and head raised high,” he said.
Critics have said that Netanyahu’s “deep state” arguments have undermined Israel’s court system and risk deeper damage to the country’s democratic institutions
Netanyahu spoke shortly before he was to attend the opening hearing in the case 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 when the Israeli leader and his main rival, former army chief Benny Gantz, came to a power-sharing deal.
As part of their power-sharing 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.