JERUSALEM (AP) – Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s corruption trial will begin on March 17, an Israeli court said Tuesday, just two weeks after national elections are held.
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.
In a brief statement, the court said Netanyahu is expected to attend the initial hearing.
Israel will hold parliamentary elections on March 2, its third vote in less than a year.
The first two elections were largely a referendum on Netanyahu, and the third is expected to be no different. Netanyahu’s campaign has sought to divert attention away from the corruption charges while his main challenger, former military chief Benny Gantz, has sought to highlight it. He argues that Netanyahu is unfit to serve as prime minister while fighting the legal charges.
Gantz also said Monday that he would work to mend ties with America’s Democratic Party if he wins the elections next month. He accused Netanyahu of neglecting bipartisan ties in Washington in favor of exclusive support from President Donald Trump’s Republican Party.
Gantz, who leads the Blue and White party, said that it was â€œvery important that we will emphasize the importance of bipartisan relationship between Israel and the United States.â€
Netanyahu has heavily emphasized his relationship with Trump in seeking to shore up support with his nationalist base in Israel.
Gantz himself recently met 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,â€ Gantz added. â€œIf he is a good president for the United States,” then that person would be a â€œgood president for the state of Israel as well.â€
Gantz and his running mate Yair Lapid addressed a crowd of around 1,000 mostly English speakers at an event late Monday in Tel Aviv. Lapid said that Israel faces the task of a â€œrehabilitationâ€ of ties with the Democrats and with American Jewry in general. The American Jewish community votes overwhelmingly Democrat.
Gantz is trying to unseat Netanyahu in the March 2 vote – after two elections in 2019 failed to yield a conclusive result. Netanyahu, Israel’s longest serving prime minister, seeks reelection while facing indictments on corruption charges. He has denied any wrongdoing.
Pre-election polls indicate that neither Gantz nor Netanyahu has a clear path to a parliamentary majority.