Witnesses at Benjamin Netanyahu’s corruption trial will give testimony up to three times a week starting in January, a judge has ruled, opening a high-profile case in which the Israeli leader is accused of bribery, fraud and breach of trust.
Such regular court appearances and potentially explosive testimonies could present a further image problem for the Israeli leader, who is fighting fresh public discontent and regular protests over his handling of a recent surge in Covid-19 cases.
The 70-year-old prime minister is alleged to have accepted hundreds of thousands of pounds in luxury gifts from billionaire friends and traded valuable favours with Israeli media and telecoms moguls for favourable news coverage.
Netanyahu, the first serving Israeli premier to go on trial, has repeatedly denied any wrongdoing, alleging he is the victim of a politically motivated witch-hunt. He was not required to be present for the second in-court day of a trial that could last years.
In the chamber, the defence attempted to postpone the hearings by six months to prepare its strategy. Netanyahu’s lawyer, Yossi Segev, argued coronavirus restrictions could also unduly damage its case.
“How can we carry out a cross-examination when I am in a mask, the witness is in a mask and I don’t know if your honour is angry or happy,” Segev asked Judge Rivka Friedman Feldman, who heads a three-judge panel in the Jerusalem district court. The judges rejected the request, saying they would continue even during a lockdown.
Israel, with a population of 9 million, has reported almost 50,000 coronavirus cases and 400 deaths, with recent daily infection figures rising close to 2,000. The government said on Friday it was forced to reimpose some lockdown measures, putting in place stringent weekend shutdowns and shuttering gyms and indoor dining at restaurants.
During the pandemic, unemployment in Israel has risen above 20%, and the new measures are likely to damage the economy further.
In the face of public criticism, Netanyahu has announced several economic aid packages. On Wednesday, the embattled leader was accused of deflecting public anger by proposing cash handouts to all Israelis. One prominent Israeli columnist, Ben Caspit, criticised the plan as the equivalent of “handing out bribes to the masses”.
On Saturday night, police used water cannon to disperse demonstrators around Netanyahu’s residence in Jerusalem, while thousands also gathered in Tel Aviv.
A police spokesman said officers had arrested 13 people in Tel Aviv for “causing public disorder and disturbances”, alleging that police had been targeted by pepper spray and hurled objects.
The spokesman shared a video with media showing confrontations between police, some on horseback, and demonstrators. In the footage, a police officer holds up what appears to be an acoustic crowd control device, blasting out a loud siren, before a protester swats it to the ground.
In Jerusalem, where protesters had blocked roads and crashed through law enforcement barriers, 15 people were arrested, police said.
Netanyahu sought to discredit the movement, tweeting a photo on Sunday of a Palestinian flag that was raised on Saturday at the Jerusalem rally.
He accused the “leftwing demonstration” of being spearheaded by his political foe and former prime minister, Ehud Barak, a man Netanyahu reminded his followers had business ties with the deceased convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein.
“Disgrace,” Netanyahu tweeted. Barak has denied wrongdoing and said last year he had he cut all business ties with Epstein.