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As He Leads Israel, Prime Minister Netanyahu Faces Corruption Trial

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

It is rare for a world leader to be tried in criminal court while still serving in office, and that's what happened today in Jerusalem. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appeared in court for the opening of his long-awaited corruption trial. If convicted, he could face years in prison. NPR's Daniel Estrin sent this report from Jerusalem on some of the dramas of the day.

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DANIEL ESTRIN, BYLINE: It's just a few hours before the opening of the Prime Minister's trial, and there's a face-off here between two groups of demonstrators separated by police right in front of the prime minister's residence. There are anti-Netanyahu demonstrators supporting the judiciary, supporting this trial. They're wearing facemasks that say crime minister.

ADI HARARI: My name is Adi Harari (ph). Finally, finally, this is a good day. This is a great day - great day. We have waited for it for a long time. And we wish there is justice.

ESTRIN: On the other side of the police barricade, people wrapped in Israeli flags singing songs in favor of Netanyahu. This is a demonstration organized by Netanyahu's Likud Party. We spoke to one of their spokesmen.

ELI VERED HAZAN: Eli Vered Hazan. I'm the foreign affairs director of Likud Party. We are here for Netanyahu. We truly believe that he's under persecution, political persecution.

ESTRIN: Just last week, Netanyahu formed a new government and secured his fifth consecutive term. Now he's Israel's first prime minister to stand trial while in office. Today, he held a Cabinet session, then filmed a meeting with Holocaust survivors who offered him their support ahead of his trial. Then he arrived at the courthouse and gave a defiant 15-minute speech.

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PRIME MINISTER BENJAMIN NETANYAHU: (Speaking Hebrew).

ESTRIN: He said, "what is on trial today is the attempt to thwart the will of the people - to topple me and topple the right wing." He alleged a conspiracy by the attorney general, justice officials, police investigators, the left wing and the media. The central charge Netanyahu faces is bribery. Amir Fuchs of the Israel Democracy Institute.

AMIR FUCHS: Generally, in criminal charges of bribery, it's hard to have good evidence about the link between the quid and the pro. And on this specific case, at least in the indictment, you see a lot of evidence of the link.

ESTRIN: Netanyahu is accused of promoting regulatory favors, helping a media mogul net hundreds of millions of dollars in return for getting to dictate flattering coverage of himself on one of Israel's biggest news websites. Netanyahu's defense - my family and I get only negative coverage. Here's how he ended his courtroom speech.

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NETANYAHU: (Speaking Hebrew).

ESTRIN: He said, "while the media deals with nonsense, I will continue to lead Israel on the issues that really matter to you, like saving jobs and lives during the coronavirus pandemic." Then the hearing began. Everyone in the courtroom wore face masks - Netanyahu, too. His lawyers asked to wait till next year to start the trial in earnest so they can study the evidence. Throughout the entire 45-minute hearing, this is what blasted right outside the courtroom window.

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UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting, unintelligible).

ESTRIN: Netanyahu's party activists chanting on loudspeakers. Inside the courtroom, though, the head judge asked Netanyahu's lawyer to step to the side a couple of times. She wanted a better view of the prime minister sitting behind him on a bench.

Daniel Estrin, NPR News, Jerusalem. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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