JERUSALEM — Benjamin Netanyahu on Sunday said the trial against him was aimed at toppling a strong, right-wing leader, launching a fiery tirade against Israel’s justice system as he became the first sitting prime minister in the country’s history to stand trial.

The dramatic opening of the long-awaited trial leads Israel into uncharted territory. Sunday’s historic first session, which involved asking the suspect whether he has read and understands the indictment against him, is the culmination of years of investigation.

Netanyahu’s defense nonetheless said it would need at least two or three months to prepare its response to the indictment. This was not a ploy for “buying time,” attorney Micha Fetman argued, noting that the so-called Case 4000 alone included 20,000 documents.

The defense also asked the court to bar prosecution witnesses from giving interviews, so that the trial would not turn into a “circus.”

In its decision published later Sunday, the court noted the prosecution’s promise that it would instruct its witnesses to refrain from speaking to the media.

It set July 19 as the date for its next session, though Netanyahu need not be present. Prosecutor Liat Ben-Ari said she had no objection to the prime minister not attending preliminary hearings.


Before entering the courtroom, Netanyahu raged that “the goal is to topple a strong, right-wing prime minister.”

In a show of power and backing, he had asked all senior ministers of his right-wing Likud party to stand behind him as he spoke.

“Police and prosecutors joined forces with left-wing journalists to sew together fabricated and delusional cases against me,” Netanyahu blasted, adding, “but I’m no poodle.”

He demanded his corruption trial be broadcast live in full so that the public could see he was innocent.

“Instead of leaks,” he said at the Jerusalem District Court, “I suggest a simple solution: that everything will be broadcast, to the fullest, without editing, without cutting, without censorship.”

Vowing to continue to lead Israel for so long as the trial continued, he reiterated that the proceedings were an “attempted coup.”


Netanyahu insinuated that Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit, who filed the indictment against him, had something “to hide.”

In a statement, Mandelblit responded that all “attempts to portray the prosecution as having ulterior motives should be rejected out of hand.” The prosecution is treating “this case as it would any other — in a professional manner and within the walls of the court,” he said.

Hundreds protested for and against the prime minister outside the court and outside Netanyahu’s residence in the city center.

A loud pro-Netanyahu gathering outside the court, kept at bay by police, shouted slogans against Israel’s court system and held up Israeli flags and signs reading “Bibi, we love you” and “Bibi, you are not alone.” The signs used Netanyahu’s nickname.

Israel’s longest-serving prime minister was officially indicted on bribery, fraud and breach of trust in January.

The 70-year-old is accused of offering political favors in return for positive media coverage, and helping wealthy business contacts in return for gifts including champagne and cigars.


Netanyahu has repeatedly denied all accusations against him.

The trial comes one week after he was sworn in as the head of an emergency unity government including his Likud party and the centrist Blue and White Alliance of his former main rival Benny Gantz.

Gantz is to take over as prime minister from November 2021. He was sworn in last week as defense minister, as well as alternate prime minister, a specially created post for the power-sharing deal.

“As every citizen, so Netanyahu is innocent until proven guilty,” Gantz said as the trial started.

Opposition leader Yair Lapid tweeted that Netanyahu’s “wild and inciting” speech at the trial opening “is final proof why a criminal defendant cannot continue to serve as prime minister.”

If he is convicted for bribery, Netanyahu could face up to 10 years in prison. For fraud and breach of trust, he could face a maximum sentence of three years, though that sentence is seen as unlikely.

Under Israeli law, Netanyahu must step down as prime minister only if he is ultimately convicted, a process that could take several years.


Music played by Netanyahu’s supporters outside the court blared through the windows.

One supporter, Sarit Ayalon, 58, told dpa she had come from a village in northern Israel all the way to Jerusalem “to say that if a referendum were held, they’d find that the majority of the people have lost all faith in the justice system.”

Yoav Glazner, 46, on the other side of the barricaded street, said he had come to protest against Netanyahu because “he was fearful of the fate of the country.”

The prime minister was innocent until proved guilty, but the indictment at the very least raised “severe moral questions.”


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