Netanyahu’s graft trial resumes amid Israeli virus anger

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Benjamin Netanyahu

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu wears a face mask to help prevent the spread of the coronavirus as he opens the weekly cabinet meeting, at the foreign ministry, in Jerusalem, Sunday, July 5, 2020. (Photo by Gali Tibbon/Pool via AP)

JERUSALEM (AP) — Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s corruption trial will resume in earnest in January, with thrice-weekly evidentiary hearings set to begin then, a Jerusalem court decided Sunday.

It was not immediately clear if Netanyahu would be required to be present at each hearing, although some Israeli media reported he would. Regardless, the grueling judicial schedule will keep Netanyahu’s legal woes firmly in the national consciousness and conversation — and continue to raise questions over whether he can keep serving while simultaneously standing trial.

The court’s decision came after the trial’s second hearing, a procedural deliberation that set the pace for the remainder of the proceedings.

The trial opened in May after a two-month delay prompted by concerns over the coronavirus. Its resumption comes as Netanyahu faces mounting discontent over his handling of the health crisis and its economic fallout.

Netanyahu is charged with fraud, breach of trust and accepting bribes in a series of scandals in which he is alleged to have received lavish gifts from billionaire friends, and exchanged regulatory favors with media moguls for more agreeable coverage of himself and his family.

Netanyahu denies wrongdoing, painting the accusations as a media-orchestrated witch hunt pursued by a biased law enforcement system.

At the first hearing in May, just before appearing in front of the judges, Netanyahu took to a podium inside the courthouse and flanked by his party members bashed the country’s legal institutions in an angry tirade.

Netanyahu did not appear at Sunday’s hearing.

According to the court, the judge decided that the trial’s evidentiary stage would begin in January and would take place three times a week.

Netanyahu’s lawyer also asked for a delay in the proceedings because of the virus, saying mask-wearing impeded his job of questioning witnesses.

The trial resumes as Netanyahu faces widespread anger over his government’s handling of the coronavirus crisis.

While the country appeared to have tamped down a first wave of infections, what’s emerged as a hasty and erratic reopening has sent infections soaring. Yet even amid the rise in new cases, Netanyahu and his emergency government — formed with the goal of dealing with the crisis — appeared to neglect the numbers and moved forward with its reopening plans and other policy priorities.

It has since reimposed restrictions, including a weekend only lockdown set to begin later this week.

Israel has seen nearly 50,000 virus cases since the outbreak began, with 406 deaths. More than 21,000 people have recovered.

Netanyahu and his government have been criticized for a baffling, halting response to the new wave, which has seen daily cases rise to nearly 2,000. It has also been slammed for its handling of the economic fallout of the crisis.

While Israel has pledged billions of dollars worth of aid, it hasn’t all been doled out to those in need, and a plan to give a stipend to all Israelis, even the wealthy, has been panned by the country’s leading economists. The first and second round of restrictions has battered the economy and sent unemployment skyrocketing to more than 20%, up from 3.9% before the outbreak.

The anger has boiled over into protests over the past few week s that have culminated in violent clashes with police.

The protests haven’t been on a massive scale, partly due to restrictions on large gatherings, but the rising frustration appears to be among the greatest challenges Netanyahu has faced in his decade-plus in power.

The trial’s resumption thus comes at inopportune timing for the long-serving leader. Netanyahu had hoped to ride on the goodwill he gained from overcoming the first wave of infections going into his corruption trial but the increasingly souring mood has dropped his approval ratings and may deny him the public backing he had hoped for.

Although his base remains firmly behind him, only a smattering of supporters turned up outside the court to voice their backing for the prime minister, far fewer than the throngs who converged at the trial’s opening.

Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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