Netanyahu’s corruption trial to start on 17 March, two weeks after Israel’s elections

Bel Trew

The corruption trial of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu trial will open on 17 March, just two weeks after national elections, the court has said.

The shock announcement struck a blow to the premier, who is battling for political survival after failing to form a government twice in less than a year.

Mr Netanyahu, Israel's longest-serving prime minister, is charged with bribery, fraud and breach of trust across three graft cases.

Among the allegations, he is accused of accepting lavish gifts from billionaire friends and exchanging regulatory favours for more positive media coverage.

He has vehemently denied any wrongdoing and branded the proceedings a political “witch hunt”.

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

The prime minister’s opponents will likely play on the legal proceedings to try to win more seats in the Knesset, Israel’s parliament.

It also could also weaken his ability to form a new government after the vote by raising doubts among potential coalition partners.

Israel will hold a parliamentary election on 2 March, the country's third vote in less than a year.

Following two earlier inconclusive elections, neither Mr Netanyahu nor his main rival ex-army chief Benny Gantz were able to secure enough seats in the 120-seat Knesset to either win outright or form a ruling coalition.

Mr Gantz has repeatedly raised the corruption trial as a reason why Mr Netanyahu would be unfit to continue in office, saying his rival would be distracted by the legal proceedings.

It comes at a difficult time for Netanyahu and his Likud Party. Mr Gantz has edged ahead in the polls as the favourite to lead the largest party after the election.

According to the poll by Israel’s Channel 13 News, Mr Gantz’s centrist alliance “Blue and White” will win 36 seats compared to the Likud’s 33.

It also said the Joint List, dominated by Arab parties, will come in third with 14 seats followed by the centre-left alliance of Labour Gesher and Meretz parties with eight seats.

However, according to the poll, neither Mr Gantz nor Mr Netanyahu will be able to build a 61-seat majority of Israel’s parliament needed to form the next government, pointing to another potential stalemate.

On the election campaign trail, Mr Netanyahu has played up his diplomatic prowess and his close ties with the White House after joining Donald Trump on stage as he unveiled Washington’s Middle East peace deal last month.

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 was quick to add. "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."

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