Date for Netanyahu trial clouds last days of election campaign

Jerusalem: The criminal trial for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will begin on March 17, court officials said on Tuesday, shaking up the final stretch of a contentious election campaign and hurting the longtime Israeli leader’s hopes of forming a new government after the vote.

The announcement means that Netanyahu will appear in the Jerusalem court as a defendant just two weeks after the March 2 election. After a campaign in which he has worked feverishly to divert attention from his legal woes, the final days of the race are almost certain to play into the hands of his opponents by focusing on the looming trial.

Netanyahu was indicted in November on charges of fraud, breach of trust and accepting bribes in connection to a series of scandals. He is accused of accepting lavish gifts from billionaire friends, including from Australia’s James Packer, and offering regulatory favours to local media moguls in exchange for positive news coverage. Netanyahu, Israel’s longest-serving prime minister, has denied any wrongdoing.

In a brief statement, the court said Netanyahu was expected to attend the initial hearing.

The election is Israel’s third in under a year. Like the previous elections in April and September, the upcoming vote is seen largely as a personal referendum on Netanyahu.

Read the article by Dan Federman in the Brisbane Times.