LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:
A big courtroom drama has begun in Jerusalem today, The State of Israel v. Benjamin Netanyahu. The longest-serving prime minister in Israel's history is now the country's first sitting prime minister to face criminal charges while still in office. If convicted, he could spend years behind bars. Corruption scandals have brought down other leaders in Israel but not Netanyahu, who's just begun a new term. NPR's Daniel Estrin is joining us now from the courthouse, and we should say there is some delay on the line. Daniel, what was the scene?
DANIEL ESTRIN, BYLINE: Well, Netanyahu arrived to the courthouse, and he gave a surprise 15-minute speech on live TV. He was surrounded by some of his ministers, and he alleged that this is all one big conspiracy. He said the police, justice officials, the media are all trying to take me down. He said the left wing doesn't like that I won't remove Jewish settlements from the West Bank. And the left wing couldn't vote me out for more than a decade, so they're trying to take me down in court. We journalists were in the courthouse. We watched the hearing on closed-circuit TV screens. Everyone in the courthouse wore face masks, including Netanyahu. And throughout the whole hearing, you could hear Bibi Netanyahu's supporters right outside the courtroom and the courthouse. They were with loudspeakers. They were playing music. They were singing "Bibi, King Of Israel."
GARCIA-NAVARRO: So no backing down either from the prime minister or his supporters. Quickly remind us what charges he's facing.
ESTRIN: Well, the most serious charge is bribery. He's accused of using his power to pull strings with government regulations to help a media mogul make hundreds of millions of dollars and, in exchange, getting secret control over a leading news website. He allegedly got to dictate what headlines and articles would appear. And that apparently went on for years, including while he was running for reelection. And then he's also charged with fraud and breach of trust for other alleged deals with other media moguls. And Netanyahu's defense here is that the charge is totally bogus. No leader in the history of democracy has ever been accused of bribery for press coverage.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: What is expected for how the trial will play out and whether it will affect Netanyahu's new term in office?
ESTRIN: Well, today, Netanyahu's lawyers argued that they need about a year and a half just to go over all the evidence and prepare before the trial can actually start in full swing. And then when it does, the entire trial could take a couple years more. There are hundreds of witnesses. His former aides may testify against him in court. And he doesn't have to step down until a final conviction in a Supreme Court appeal if there is one. So for years, you know, he will try to project business as usual. But every move he makes, every decision he makes as a leader, there will be speculation. You know, is he trying to distract from his trial?
GARCIA-NAVARRO: This has never happened before, an Israeli prime minister facing a criminal trial and also running a country at the same time. What does this say about where Israel is right now?
ESTRIN: Well, on the one hand, I think it says it is a strong message that no one is above the law in Israel, not even the prime minister. On the other hand, Netanyahu is sending the message that he is an exception. You know, other senior officials who were indicted on corruption charges have resigned. Netanyahu refuses. And, you know, it shows that he is strong politically. His political opposition is weak. None of this for year - all these bribery allegations, none of it brought down Netanyahu.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's NPR's Daniel Estrin at the courthouse in Jerusalem. Thank you so much.
ESTRIN: Thanks, Lulu.
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