Netanyahu pleads not guilty to corruption as trial resumes

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu looks on as he arrives to a hearing in his corruption trial at Jerusalem's District Court February 8, 2021. Reuben Castro/Pool via REUTERS

By Jeffrey Heller

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu pleaded not guilty on Monday to corruption charges at the resumption of his trial, six weeks before voters again head to the polls to pass judgment on his leadership.

“I confirm the written answer submitted in my name,” Netanyahu said, standing before the three-judge panel in the heavily guarded Jerusalem District Court.

He was referring to a document his lawyers gave the court last month in which they argued that Netanyahu, 71, was not guilty of charges of bribery, breach of trust and fraud.

Wearing a coronavirus mask, Netanyahu, the first serving Israeli leader to be charged with a crime, seemed intent on projecting an air of business as usual, thanking the court and leaving without explanation some 20 minutes into the session.

Netanyahu was indicted in 2019 in long-running cases involving gifts from millionaire friends and for allegedly seeking regulatory favors for media tycoons in return for favorable coverage.

On entering the courtroom, Netanyahu sat in a corner with his lawyers, his back to cameras. The session itself was not broadcast but reporters could monitor a closed-circuit feed elsewhere in the building.

His quick departure from the court building seemed aimed at showing the public that he would not allow the trial to interfere with government business as Israel begins to emerge from a month-long coronavirus lockdown.

Israel will hold its fourth parliamentary election in two years on March 23, with Netanyahu’s handling of the health crisis and his alleged corruption the main issues stoking weekly protests against him.

Opinion polls show the race too close to call, as right-wing rivals and center-left opponents muster against Israel’s longest-serving leader. Netanyahu has been prime minister continuously since 2009 after a first term from 1996 to 1999.

(Editing by Kirsten Donovan and Nick Macfie)

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