Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appeared before a Jerusalem court Sunday to hear the criminal charges leveled against him in what was an unprecedented scene in the history of Israel.
Netanyahu, who was indicted on corruption charges in November, is the first sitting prime minister to be charged with a crime and to appear as a defendant in court. His predecessor, Ehud Olmert, resigned a decade ago ahead of a corruption indictment that later sent him to prison for 16 months.
Netanyahu, 70, has been charged with one count of bribery and three counts of fraud and breach of trust in three long-running corruption cases. He denies any wrongdoing and says he is the victim of a politically orchestrated "witch hunt."
If convicted, he could face up to 10 years in prison for bribery and a maximum 3-year-term for each count of fraud and breach of trust, according to legal experts, who caution that it is unlikely he would be handed maximum sentences even if found guilty.
Netanyahu entered Jerusalem District Court wearing a blue surgical mask, in line with public health restriction due to the coronavirus pandemic. He stood and talked to his lawyers, refusing to sit until TV cameras left the room.
On his arrival he claimed that he was the victim of a deep state-type conspiracy by media, police, prosecutors and judges out to oust him.
"The objective is to depose a strong, right-wing prime minister, and thus remove the nationalist camp from the leadership of the country for many years," he said.
He also tweeted a picture of himself in court standing with his supporters.
"Thank you citizens of Israel, and many thanks to the Likud members for their tremendous support! You give me the power to fight - and win," he wrote underneath the image.
The lawyers and judges also wore masks, with the three-judge panel sitting behind a glass divider.
Netanyahu's lawyers said they would need two to three months to respond to the arraignment. They added that needed additional funds to add to their defense's legal team.
The cases against him are known as Case 1000, Case 2000 and Case 4000.
Case 4000, the most serious of all three, alleges that Netanyahu made regulatory decisions that favored Shaul Alovich's Bezeq telecommunications group in exchange for positive coverage on his news website Walla. In this case, Netanyahu is charged with bribery and one count of fraud and breach of trust.
Case 1000 alleges that Netanyahu received gifts, including cigars and champagne, worth “hundreds of thousands of shekels” from Hollywood mogul Arnon Milchan and other supporters. In this case, he is charged with one count of fraud and breach of trust.
Case 2000 alleges that Netanyahu worked out a deal for favorable coverage with Arnon "Noni" Moses, the publisher of an Israeli newspaper, Yediot Aharonot, in exchange for backing a bill that would weaken a rival newspaper. Netanyahu is charged with one count of fraud and breach of trust in this case.
Netanyahu’s appearance in court comes a week after Israel’s new unity government was sworn in, sealing his grip on power for another 18 months at least. He is already Israel’s longest serving prime minister.
Netanyahu had petitioned the court to allow him not to appear on Sunday, but it ruled against that petition.
"We have not found that the applicant has reason to justify an exception to this rule," the court said.
“The idea that everyone is treated the same before the law is a very powerful image and this is going to be a very powerful image on Sunday to have the prime minister in court,” said Yuval Shany, a senior researcher at Israeli Democracy Institute, a leading Israeli research center.
There will be more than 300 prosecution witnesses of which perhaps the most important are three people who used to work with Netanyahu. The three former colleagues have since struck a deal with the prosecution that they won’t be prosecuted for their own involvement in the cases in return for them providing evidence against Netanyahu.
It is unclear how long the trial will last but it is expected to be years before a final decision is made. Even then, either side could appeal to the Supreme Court.