DEFIANT Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu strode into a courtroom on Sunday to face corruption charges... to the sounds of his impassioned supporters chanting outside.
As he entered the Jerusalem courthouse to become the country’s first sitting prime minister to go on trial, Netanyahu launched into a lengthy tirade against the nation’s justice system.
He faces charges of accepting bribes, fraud and breach of trust.
“The police, prosecution, press, the Left and the legal establishment joined together to bring me down because I do not want to evacuate Jewish communities in Judea and Samaria,” Netanyahu said.
“They don’t like that I’m not a poodle.”
Surrounded by Cabinet ministers, he went on: “I stand before you with a straight back and head raised high.
“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.”
The stand-off, and Netanyahu’s own fiery rhetoric, looked to worsen the nation’s deep divisions just after Netanyahu swore in what he called a “unity” government with former rival Benny Gantz.
Outside the courthouse, hundreds of supporters rallied in his defence.
They packed a narrow street while waving Israeli flags and banners denouncing what they called a corrupt prosecution seeking to topple a leader of historic proportion.
Others gathered at his official residence to demonstrate against what they called a “crime minister” and carried posters calling for his resignation.
They faced off across police barricades with more of the prime minister’s backers.
Netanyahu stands accused of accepting bribes in a series of corruption cases stemming from ties to wealthy friends.
He is alleged to have accepted lavish gifts and offered to grant favours to media moguls in exchange for favourable coverage of him and his family.
Netanyahu denies the charges, which come after years of scandals swirling around his family.
He entered the courtroom wearing a blue surgical mask, following restrictions due to the coronavirus pandemic.
He refused to sit until TV cameras left the room, and remained in the front row throughout the session. During the proceedings, the lawyers and judges also wore masks, with the three-judge panel sitting behind a glass divider.
In a hint of what could lie ahead, his lawyer said the defence would need several months to study the hundreds of reams of evidence and to build its legal team.
Netanyahu did not speak during the one-hour session, rising just once to confirm he understood the charges.
He will not be required to attend future hearings during a case that legal analysts expect to stretch over several years. The next hearing was scheduled for July 19.
Before the session, Netanyahu said police and prosecutors had “stitched up” a case and that the evidence was “contaminated” and exaggerated.
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