JERUSALEM - Prime Minister Netanyahu's corruption trial will begin hearing witness testimony in January, the court in Israel announced Sunday after lawyers for the prime minister argued for a six-month delay because of the coronavirus. The decision comes amid growing protests over his handling of the pandemic including violence and calls for Netanyahu to resign. A second wave of the pandemic and new restrictions have left the public angry and confused.
A judge in Jerusalem ruled that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s trial on three counts of corruption, fraud and breach of trust will begin to hear testimony from witnesses in January, and that hearings will be held three times a week.
Netanyahu was not present. His defense attorney had asked for a delay because of the COVID-19 pandemic, arguing it will be hard for him to question witnesses who are wearing face masks.
Israeli analysts say Netanyahu has consistently tried to delay his trial and has asked the court to allow him to accept donations from wealthy friends and relatives for his defense — a request the court has denied.
Netanyahu is accused in three different cases, including Case 4000, which is seen as the most serious. In that case he is accused of approving regulatory moves that would benefit the main shareholder of Israel’s largest telecom company in exchange for positive news coverage.
Israel’s justice minister says the trial will continue even if Israel imposes a full lockdown to fight the pandemic.
The trial comes as the Israeli public has lost faith in the government in general and in Netanyahu in particular, according to Tamar Hermann, a pollster at the Israel Democracy Insitute.
"So what we see is a general sharp decline in trust in all people and teams involved in the policy-making regarding the corona crisis," said Hermann.
Hermann said Netanyahu’s approval rating has gone from 60 percent in March, even during the first wave of the pandemic, to less than 30 percent.
Frustration over the handling of the second wave is also breeding growing anger at the government, especially among younger Israelis.
For the second week in a row more than ten thousand Israelis demonstrated in both Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, most wearing masks. But after the demonstration ended, a few dozen blocked roads and clashed with police, leading to arrests.
The unemployment rate in Israel is skyrocketing and many say they have not yet received promised government aid.
COVID-19 has now left 400 dead since the beginning of the pandemic and a growing number of others with serious damage to their health. The government this weekend decided to close all gyms, pools and restaurants except for take-out and delivery. Beaches and malls will be closed on weekends but not during the week.