JERUSALEM — Few world leaders have ever stood trial while in office, let alone while running for re-election in the middle of a pandemic.
Yet on Monday morning — with a general election just weeks away, and a fraught decision about reopening the education system due soon — Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel was forced to shift his attention away from matters of state and attend instead the resumption of his trial on corruption charges.
The hearing was largely administrative and Mr. Netanyahu spoke only briefly to plead his innocence.
“I confirm the response that was filed in my name,” the prime minister said, referring to a written plea that his lawyers entered several weeks ago.
Mr. Netanyahu spent less than half an hour inside the courtroom before leaving his lawyers to argue with the three judges about procedural matters. But that was the first time that Mr. Netanyahu had spoken in the court itself since the trial started last May, and only the second time that he had attended in person.
And the simple spectacle of a sitting prime minister in the dock has kindled a debate about the health of Israel’s democracy and judicial system.
For some, the fact that an Israeli prime minister can be brought to trial in an Israeli court is strong evidence of judicial independence and equality before the law. But others fear that the discourse that has surrounded the trial — which Mr. Netanyahu has himself portrayed as a plot by unelected bureaucrats to undermine the will of the people — has undermined public trust in the judicial system.
On Monday, the chief prosecutor in the case, Liat Ben-Ari, arrived in court accompanied by a security detail, after threats to her safety.
Mr. Netanyahu faces multiple charges. In one case, he is accused of granting political favors to two businessmen in exchange for gifts worth about $200,000, including cigars and Champagne. In other cases, he is alleged to have sought favorable media coverage from major news outlets in exchange for regulatory changes that benefited their owners.
If convicted, Mr. Netanyahu could face several years in prison, but a verdict is not expected for several months, if not years. The trial has already been delayed several times by coronavirus restrictions, though the process may accelerate in the coming weeks as the court begins to hear from prosecution witnesses.
In the short term, many analysts say they believe that the trial may not have a large impact on the outcome of the election on March 23. Most voters formed their opinions long ago, since the trial and the investigation that led to it have dragged on for years, said Dahlia Scheindlin, an Israeli political analyst and pollster.
“Could the opening of the trial really change anybody’s mind?” Ms. Scheindlin said. “So far, I don’t really see it.”
“None of this is new — people have had years to factor this in,” she added.
To his critics, the simple fact that Mr. Netanyahu opted against resigning from office, despite being distracted by complicated criminal proceedings, was already evidence of a dangerous selfishness.
Many government failings throughout the pandemic were “all because of the trial,” the Black Flags, an opposition movement that has led protests against Mr. Netanyahu, posted on Twitter on Monday morning. “His personal survival is more important to him than the survival of the state.”
But to Mr. Netanyahu’s supporters, the trial is proof of a deep conspiracy against him, and little that occurs during the hearings will change their mind.
“Today marks another stage in the attempted political assassination known as the Netanyahu cases,” wrote Osnat Mark, a lawmaker from Mr. Netanyahu’s party. “With incredible timing, the prosecution seeks to expedite the hearing of prosecution witnesses near the election as a political battering tool. The public did not buy it at the hearing nor at the filing of the indictments near the election and will not buy it now either.”
Myra Noveck and Irit Pazner Garshowitz contributed reporting.
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