Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is expected to attend a court hearing on March 17 for the first day of his corruption trial, the Israeli judiciary said Tuesday.
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The trial is scheduled to begin two weeks after the country’s general elections - the third in a year - in which the right-wing premier is fighting for his political survival, against rival Benny Gantz from the Blue and White party.
A long-running investigation led to Netanyahu’s indictment in November in all of the three major cases against him.
The Likud’s party leader is accused of accepting US$ 264,000 worth of gifts from tycoons and of dispensing favors in return for favorable stories about him in Israel's biggest-selling newspaper, Yedioth Ahronoth, and the Walla website.
The most serious of the three cases allege that Netanyahu granted regulatory favors worth about 1.8 billion shekels (about US$ 500 million) to Israel's leading telecommunications company, Bezeq Telecom Israel.
The prime minister has denied any wrongdoing and said he is the victim of a political witch hunt. He could face a sentence of 10 years in prison if convicted of bribery and a maximum three-year term for fraud and breach of trust.
Fighting to avoid conviction, Netanyahu is also fighting for his political future. Last year he failed to secure a clear win in two elections, generating a political crisis in the country.
The upcoming third election is crucial for him because If re-elected, he will not be legally required to resign unless ultimately convicted, a process that could take years.
The latest polls show Gantz with a small lead of 36 seats to 33 for Netanyahu’s Likud party, and neither of the two rivals will likely gain enough seats to secure a majority in the Knesset (Israel’s parliament). If the scenario of the two previous elections occurs again, Israel’s political turmoil could be extended with the country heading to a fourth election.
Gantz, a former army chief, has centered his campaign on the premier’s legal woes. He has discarded joining any Likud party-led government.