Netanyahu corruption trial to begin amid national elections

Benjamin Netanyahu is charged with bribery, fraud, and accepting lavish gifts in exchange for regulatory favors. The timing of the March 17 trial against Israel's longest-serving prime minister could weaken his ability to form a new government. 

Gali Tibbon/Pool/Reuters
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gestures as he chairs the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem on Feb. 16, 2020. A court announced Mr. Netanyahu's corruption trial will begin March 17, 2020, two weeks after Israel's national elections.

The corruption trial for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will begin March 17, just two weeks after national elections are held, a court said Tuesday.

The surprise announcement immediately shook up the final stretch of the contentious election campaign, upending Mr. Netanyahu's attempts to divert attention away from his legal woes. It also could weaken his ability to form a new government after the vote by raising doubts among potential coalition partners about his ability to govern.

Mr. Netanyahu is charged with bribery, fraud, and breach of trust under a number of cases in which he is alleged to have accepted lavish gifts from billionaire friends and exchanged regulatory favors for more positive media coverage. Mr. Netanyahu, Israel's longest-serving prime minister, has denied any wrongdoing.

In a brief statement, the court said Mr. Netanyahu is expected to attend the initial hearing.

Israel will hold a parliamentary election on March 2, its third vote in less than a year. The first two were largely a referendum on Mr. Netanyahu and the third is expected to be no different. The two elections in 2019 failed to yield a conclusive result.

Since he was indicted in November, Mr. Netanyahu's campaign has tried to make voters forget about the looming trial by portraying him as a global statesman and focusing on his close relationship with President Donald Trump.

His challenger, former military chief Benny Gantz, has sought to highlight Mr. Netanyahu's legal troubles, arguing that he is unfit to serve as prime minister while he is a defendant.

Mr. Gantz said Monday he would work to mend ties with the United States Democratic Party if he wins the election. He accused Mr. Netanyahu of neglecting bipartisan ties in Washington in favor of exclusive support from Mr. Trump's Republican Party.

Mr. Gantz, who leads the Blue and White party, said it was "very important that we will emphasize the importance of bipartisan relationship between Israel and the United States."

Mr. Netanyahu has heavily emphasized his relationship with Mr. Trump in seeking to shore up support with his nationalist base in Israel.

Mr. Gantz himself recently met Mr. Trump at the White House, where he welcomed the president's strong support for Israel.

"But we don't care if the American president is a Republican or Democrat," Mr. Gantz said. "If he is a good president for the United States," then that person would be a "good president for the state of Israel as well."

Mr. Gantz and his running mate Yair Lapid addressed a crowd of about 1,000 mostly English speakers at an event late Monday hosted by Tel Aviv International Salon, a local speaker's bureau.

Mr. Lapid said that Israel faces the task of a "rehabilitation" of ties with the Democrats and with American Jewry in general. The American Jewish community generally votes overwhelmingly for Democrats.

Pre-election polls indicate that neither Mr. Gantz nor Mr. Netanyahu has a clear path to a parliamentary majority.

This story was reported by The Associated Press.

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