As Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appeared in court on Monday for a hearing in his corruption trial, Defense Minister Benny Gantz, who is also acting justice minister, said that although it was a “hard, sad day” for the country, it showed that nobody was above the law.
Netanyahu appeared briefly at Jerusalem District Court to formally deny the charges against him in three cases that involve accusations of bribery, fraud, and breach of trust.
“This is a hard and sad day for Israel and every citizen feels suffocated by it, but also an important day in which every person understands that nobody is immune from the law,” Gantz said in a video message posted to social media.
“We are all equal before the law, including you, prime minister,” said Gantz, who leads the Blue and White party that formed the ultimately doomed unity government with Netanyahu’s Likud.
“For long months the justice system has been under unprecedented attack,” he said, referring to accusations by Netanyahu and his supporters that the cases against the prime minister are unfounded and constitute a politically motivated attempt to drive him from office.
“This is a threat to Israeli democracy,” Gantz said.
Gideon Sa’ar, a former Likud lawmaker who in December left to set up his own New Hope party to directly challenge Netanyahu in the coming March elections, called for politics to be kept out of the trial proceedings.
“This is a hard day for all of us and a hard day for Israel,” said Sa’ar, speaking to reporters during an campaign tour in the city of Ra’anana. “This is a matter that politicians from all sides should not become involved in.”
“The judicial procedure must be allowed to be carried out without any kind of political pressure,” said Sa’ar who, when leaving Likud, accused Netanyahu of bending the party to his personal needs, including regarding the criminal cases against him.
Opposition leader MK Yair Lapid of the Yesh Atid party accused the government of failing to function and being “busy with legal procedures” among other faults in a lengthy campaign message posted to his Facebook.
The Movement for a Quality Government in Israel, an independent grassroots lobby group that has backed weekly demonstrations calling on Netanyahu to resign for a number of reasons, including the charges against him, said the trial was “a light at the end of the tunnel.”
“The rule of law stands firm and is proof of the strength of the country,” the group wrote in a statement. “Thanks to the thousands who refuse to accept a reality in which the prime minister is preoccupied with escaping justice instead of running the country, the public spotlight continues to be directed at the Netanyahu trial.”
Less than two hours after exiting the courtroom, Netanyahu posted a photo online of himself meeting with Health Minister Yuli Edelstein. He made no mention of the trial, either in the hours before the court session or afterward.
Members of Netanyahu’s Likud party had geared up to accompany him to the court, but Netanyahu reportedly told them not to come to the hearing, due to surging COVID-19 infections.
However, some Likud members sent their support online.
“We may not be with you physically, but we are with you from afar, offering our strength and support,” wrote longtime ally Transportation Minister Miri Regev on Facebook. “Like many in the public, I believe in his innocence.”
Likud MK Osnat Mark called the hearing “another stage in the attempted political assassination called the Netanyahu cases.”
Netanyahu faces charges of bribery, fraud, and breach of trust in Case 4000, which involves suspicions that he granted regulatory favors benefiting Shaul Elovitch, the controlling shareholder of Bezeq telecoms, in exchange for positive coverage of the prime minister and his family from the Bezeq-owned Walla news site. Elovitch and his wife, Iris, also face bribery charges in the case.
Netanyahu also faces charges of fraud and breach of trust in Case 1000 and in Case 2000. The former involves suspicions Netanyahu illicitly accepted some $200,000 in gifts such as cigars and champagne from two billionaires — Hollywood-based Israeli movie mogul Arnon Milchan and Australian magnate James Packer.
In Case 2000, Netanyahu is accused of attempting to reach a quid pro quo with Yedioth Ahronoth publisher Arnon Mozes for positive media coverage in exchange for legislation weakening rival newspaper Israel Hayom. Mozes was charged with bribery in the case.
It was the second time Netanyahu has attended a hearing of his trial in person. In the first hearing of the trial last May — the previous time Netanyahu was required to attend — most of the party’s lawmakers showed up and the premier made a long, fiery speech lambasting the justice system and saying the charges were “fabricated.”
Netanyahu, who is the first Israeli premier to be indicted while in office, denies any wrongdoing and has railed against the courts, prosecution, and media for what he terms a “witch hunt.” He alleges the state prosecution, police, media, and opposition are framing him in an attempted political coup.