Israel’s Netanyahu pleads not guilty to corruption charges as trial resumes

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

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

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

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. He has denied any wrongdoing.

He last came to court in May at the start of a trial subsequently delayed by coronavirus lockdowns. At that session, he delivered a speech in the corridor, flanked by cabinet ministers from his right-wing Likud party, denouncing his prosecution as a political witch hunt.

Before Monday’s session, at which Netanyahu will be asked to respond formally to the charges against him, the Israeli leader issued a public appeal to supporters not to come to the court building, citing health precautions in the coronavirus pandemic.

But dozens of protesters demanding his resignation held a demonstration near the court house against the first serving Israeli prime minister to be charged with a crime.

A politically-divided Israel will hold its fourth parliamentary election in two years on March 23, with Netanyahu’s handling of the COVID-19 crisis and his alleged corruption main issues stoking weekly protests against him.

Opinion polls show the race too close to call, as right-wing rivals and centre-left opponents muster against Israel’s longest-serving leader. Netanyahu, 71, has been prime minister continuously since 2009 after a first term from 1996 to 1999.