“Everyone knows the cases against me are rigged,” Netanyahu said, adding that the prosecutors hadn’t done a good job. Still, he said holding the evidentiary stage at this time would amount to election “interference.”
Israel’s longest serving leader is also the first sitting prime minister to go on trial for corruption. 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. He has refused to step down and has used his office as a bully pulpit against critics and the criminal justice system.
At Monday’s hearing, Netanyahu’s lawyers submitted a written response pleading not guilty. They then argued against the cases on procedural grounds, saying the attorney general had not properly approved the investigations in writing.
After around 20 minutes, Netanyahu left the courtroom without explanation and his motorcade departed. His only remarks to the court were that he had nothing to add to his attorney’s response to the charges.
The hearing continued in his absence, with his lawyers arguing for more than an hour that constitutional procedures had not been followed. The judges appeared skeptical and repeatedly called on the defense lawyers to wrap it up. The prosecution then rejected those arguments, saying the attorney general had approved the investigations in dozens of meetings.
The prime minister’s attorneys called on the court to postpone evidence hearings for several more months, claiming they had inadequate time to prepare. If granted, the hearings would take place after the upcoming elections.
Outside the courthouse, around 150 protesters chanted against Netanyahu. Many carried banners reading “Crime Minister.”
“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.
At the start of his trial last May, Netanyahu was flanked by a cohort of Likud party allies as he railed against the media, police, judges and prosecutors. He said the trial aimed to “depose a strong, right-wing prime minister, and thus remove the nationalist camp from the leadership of the country for many years.”
Monday’s hearing was far more subdued. Netanyahu arrived at the courthouse unaccompanied by supporters and entered through a rear entrance.
Netanyahu has served as Israel’s prime minister since 2009, and in the past two years has managed to hang onto power through three tumultuous, deadlocked elections. His flimsy ruling coalition collapsed in December and he now faces a major battle for reelection in March 23 parliamentary elections.