Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu returned to a Jerusalem court on Monday as the corruption trial against him resumed with opening arguments and witness testimony.
Netanyahu, 71, is the first sitting premier in Israel’s history to stand trial.
He is accused of bribery, fraud and breach of trust in three separate cases. Prosecutors allege Netanyahu systematically accepted expensive gifts and tried to improve media coverage of him in return for favours.
He last appeared in the Jerusalem District Court in February, when he formally denied all of the charges against him.
On Monday, lead prosecutor Liat Ben-Ari began laying out the case. She said Netanyahu had abused his immense power for personal gain and granted perks to media outlets in order to help him get re-elected.
Ben-Ari, according to media reports, stressed in her speech that everyone is equal before the law and that the indictment against Netanyahu is based on solid evidence.
Israel’s longest-serving leader was present during the prosecutor’s address, after which he left the courtroom.
During a later speech, he accused public prosecutors of staging a “coup attempt” against him and said a “witch hunt” was under way.
Witness testimony and questioning also began on Monday. Going forward, three witnesses are expected to take the stand each week the trial takes place.
Among other allegations, Netanyahu is suspected of having granted benefits to the telecom giant Bezeq when he held the Communications Ministry portfolio while also serving as prime minister.
In return, the Bezeq-owned Walla news site is said to have given Netanyahu favourable coverage. Former Walla chief executive Ilan Yeshua was the first witness to be questioned in the trial.
Yeshua told the court of systematic interference in reporting and said there was strong pressure to report positively about Netanyahu and his family, and negatively about his political opponents.
In addition to the Bezeq probe, there are two other cases levelled at Netanyahu.
In one, Netanyahu is accused of having negotiated a deal with the publisher of a critical newspaper, Yedioth Ahronoth, to improve its coverage of him in exchange for weakening a pro-Netanyahu paper, Israel Hayom.
In the other, Netanyahu is accused of having received gifts from billionaires in exchange for his assistance in business and personal areas.
He and his wife, Sara, allegedly received a “steady supply of” boxes of expensive cigars and Champagne, as well as other gifts worth a total of 690,000 Israeli shekels (192,000 dollars) between October 2011 and December 2016 from Israeli film producer Arnon Milchan and Australian businessman James Packer.
In return, among other things, Netanyahu is suspected of having intervened in favour of an extension of Milchan’s tax exemption, as well as arranging a US visa for him.
Amid heightened police presence, demonstrators gathered outside the building, with Netanyahu opponents holding a large banner that read “Crime Minister.” There was also a large crowd of supporters.