April 5 (UPI) — Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu returned to a Jerusalem court on Monday for his corruption trial, as political leaders weigh in on whether he should be in charge of forming a new coalition government after the fourth election in two years.
Netanyahu faces multiple counts of bribery, fraud and breach of trust in three corruption cases. Part of the cases are accusations that Netanyahu effectively bought positive media coverage of his administration.
In her opening statement, lead prosecutor Liat Ben Ari told the court that Netanyahu sought “improper benefits from owners of major media in Israel in order to advance his personal affairs.”
“Everyone is equal in the eyes of the law and all people are equal before the court and the judges, the great and the small, the rich and the poor, the powerful and the simple,” she said in a report by Haaretz.
Ben Ari called the cases one of the gravest in Israel’s history. It is the first-ever public corruption trial of a sitting Israeli prime minister.
Ilan Yeshua, the former CEO of the Walla News site and a key witness, testified on accusations that his outlet gave favorable coverage to Netanyahu at the request of Walla owner Shaul Elovitch.
There were more than 300 purported incidents of Netanyahu interfering with Walla coverage between 2013 and 2016, prosecutors argue.
She said the benefits granted by Netanyahu were worth hundreds of millions of shekels.
The second case, Ben Ari said, is an “overwhelmingly clear bribery case” in which media outlet Yediot owner Arnono Nuni Mozes tried to bribe Netanyahu to help him harm competitor Yisrael Hayom.
Israelis oppose Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Monday during his corruption trial outside Jerusalem District Court in East Jerusalem, Israel. Photo by Debbie Hill/UPI
She said Netanyahu did not refuse the bribery scheme and actively worked to make it appear that it would go through.
In the third case, the prime minister is accused of breach of trust for receiving expensive cigars and champagne from people with whom he may have had a conflict of interest.
Netanyahu lawyer Boaz Ben Tzur and Shaul Elovitch lawyer Jacques Chen criticized prosecutors’ opening statement as a violation of their clients’ rights and said it improperly added details beyond the purview of the indictment.
Lead Judge Rivkah Freidman-Feldman said the defense will have an opportunity to object at a later time.
Netanyahu was present in court on Monday and remained until the end of the opening statement before leaving. He has denied wrongdoing. Monday was just the third time he’d been physically present in the courtroom.
Some groups argue that Netanyahu should resign as prime minister given the amount of time the trial is expected to take. Monday’s hearing came just a couple weeks after Israel’s parliamentary elections, in which Netanyahu’s party and allies won the most seats, but not enough for a ruling majority.
Israeli President Reuven Rivlin is expected to soon give a mandate to form a governing coalition. That responsibility would typically fall to Netanyahu, but some political leaders say the corruption trial should pass on that mandate to someone else.
The trial is expected to run on a weekly basis on Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays until its conclusion.