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Lots of Noise, Three Cases, and One Prime Minister: Benjamin Netanyahu Trial Kicks Off in Jerusalem

© REUTERS / Adina Valman/Knesset Spokesperson's Office/HandoutIsraeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu wears a mask during a swearing in ceremony of his new unity government with election rival Benny Gantz, at the Knesset, Israel's parliament, in Jerusalem May 17, 2020.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu wears a mask during a swearing in ceremony of his new unity government with election rival Benny Gantz, at the Knesset, Israel's parliament, in Jerusalem May 17, 2020.  - Sputnik International
Israel's prime minister is set to arrive at the Jerusalem District Court later today amid tightened security and mass demonstrations in favour of and against the PM, who is accused of bribery, fraud, and breach of trust in a series of graft probes that include buying positive news coverage and receiving illegal gifts from a rich donor.

East Jerusalem will see heavy traffic and tightened security later today as the city prepares for the opening of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's trial, who will now become not only the country's longest serving but also the first sitting PM to go before a tribunal.

Citing an unwillingness to breach regulations imposed by Israel's Ministry of Health banning crowds in enclosed spaces, Netanyahu tried to skip his first hearing but the High Court decided his presence was "necessary", ruling that only a few people would be let inside the courtroom.

The trial, previously scheduled for mid-March, was postponed due to the outbreak of the coronavirus and is set to kick off at 13:00 GMT. Netanyahu is expected to arrive at the court accompanied by a retinue of bodyguards and security personnel as well as several of his loyalists, members of his party Likud.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gives an address at the London Stock Exchange in the City of London, Friday, Nov. 3, 2017. - Sputnik International
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Despite initial reports that the trial would be aired live, Israel's High Court ruled that the general public will not be able to see what is arguably the most scandalous affair in the nation's history.

Instead, reporters who would usually be positioned inside the courtroom, will now need to settle for a room on another floor, away from the action, watching the hearing from a TV screen. This is a definite relief for Netanyahu, who wanted to avoid being seen as a criminal standing up in front of judges just like any other ordinary citizen.

Crime Minister?

The only problem is that most of the nation already sees him as such. A 2019 poll released after Netanyahu's cases were made public showed that 55 percent of Israelis considered the PM corrupt. At the same time, the survey also highlighted the disbelief Israel's public felt towards Attorney General Avichai Mandelblitt, who indicted the prime minister, with 45 percent of respondents saying they had little trust in him and the judiciary system he represented.

Soon after the AG rolled out his indictment in November 2019, accusing the PM in a series of graft probes, people took to the streets across the country accusing him of joining forces with left-wing circles in a bid to bring Netanyahu down.

Similar protests are expected later today in front of the court where the trial is set to take place. At least a 1,000 Netanyahu supporters are slated to arrive to back the PM and send a clear message to the judiciary that their "biased" actions are considered illegitimate.

They won't be alone. A year ago, a poll conducted by the newspaper Israel Hayom, found that 61 percent of Israelis believed the President of the country's High Court Esther Hayout held left-wing views which influenced her decisions. Similar findings have also been made about other players in the system including the deputy attorney general and state prosecutor.

Now, however, Netanyahu supporters are also afraid that the judges set to hear the PM's case will also be biased against him. Their primary concern is aimed at Rivka Freedman-Feldman. In 2015, she found former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert guilty of bribery, and loyalists of the current PM are concerned that history might repeat itself. 

What to Expect?

Today's hearing is not expected to take very long. It will start with Prosecutor Liat Ben Ari reading out her accusations, with Netanyahu expected to answer whether he understands the meaning of what was put out in front of him, while his defence is set to refute all accusations against their client, proclaiming the PM's innocence.

But the more advanced stages of the trial, where judges are expected to go through hundreds of documents and hear 333 witnesses from the prosecution in addition to a long list from the defence, could take up to two years, if sessions are held once or twice a week.

Given that the cases are so important and full of information, requiring time and preparation, the judges might decide to space out the hearings, stretching out the process for ages.

Netanyahu, however, is not planning to sit on his hands. Appointing loyalist Amir Ohana as homeland security minister, the prime minister secured access to the nation's most delicate and sensitive probes and obtained a means to rattle the judiciary by interfering in police investigations

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu waves after addressing members of his right-wing party bloc at a conference in Tel Aviv, Israel November 17, 2019. REUTERS/Nir Elias - Sputnik International
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Benjamin Netanyahu is facing charges of bribery, fraud, and breach of trust in a series of graft probes but denies any wrongdoing.

In what's known as case 4000, the most significant of the three, he is accused of buying positive press in one of Israel's leading websites Walla in exchange for promoting the interests of the site's owner Shaul Alovich.

In case 2000, Netanyahu is also accused of attempting to buy positive coverage for himself and his family, this time from Noni Mozes, the owner of news conglomerate Yedioth Ahronot. 

Unlike case 4000, where the PM allegedly bribed Alovich, the case with Mozes is lighter as Netanyahu is only accused of breaching the trust of the public by not rejecting Mozes' proposal and considering to impose a series of regulations that would harm Yedioth Ahronot's main competitor.

In case 1000, the prosecution wants to hold Netanyahu accountable for receiving almost $200,000 worth of gifts from a rich donor, including cigars, pink champagne, and jewels in exchange for letting Arnon Milchin evade taxes.

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