Netanyahu lawyers arrive for pre-indictment hearing

Jerusalem (AFP) –


Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's lawyers arrived for his pre-indictment hearing on corruption allegations Wednesday and pledged to convince prosecutors to drop the cases against him.

Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit had in February announced his intention to indict the premier for bribery, fraud and breach of trust pending a hearing in three separate cases.

He is accused of acting on behalf of wealthy supporters and businessmen in exchange for gifts or favourable news coverage.

Speaking to journalists outside the justice ministry ahead of the closed-door hearing, Netanyahu attorney Ram Caspi said that based on the materials and arguments they would present, there was "a solid foundation for a change of course".

Caspi also said he was confident that Mandelblit would reach his decision "in a professional manner, ignoring the background noises".

"The prime minister is not above the law, but neither is he below it," he said.

Mandelblit had rejected Netanyahu's request to broadcast the hearings live.

Another attorney, Amit Hadad, noted they had new evidence to present to Mandelblit.

"At the end of the day, the three cases will have to be closed," he told journalists.

The hearings will last four days and Netanyahu is not expected to attend in person.

Mandelblit is expected to take several weeks to decide whether to issue the indictments after the hearing is complete.

Netanyahu denies all the accusations and has labelled them bids by his enemies to force him from office, which he has held for a total of over 13 years, the longest in Israeli history.

The hearing comes with Netanyahu's attempts to form a unity government following September 17 elections at an impasse after his main opponent cancelled a meeting planned for Wednesday.

Netanyahu was instead planning to meet with the heads of right-wing and religious parties supporting his bid to form and head a government after the deadlocked election.

In calling off Wednesday's negotiations, Benny Gantz's centrist Blue and White said that preconditions for continued talks "have not been met."

"We will not be the background for Netanyahu's election games," Blue and White said.

Netanyahu had also sought to meet Gantz later Wednesday, but Blue and White said there was no point in doing so for now.

Netanyahu had been tasked by President Reuven Rivlin with forming a coalition, and should the incumbent premier say he cannot do so, the president must then decide whether to ask Gantz to try.

Alternatively, Rivlin could call on parliament to agree on a candidate for prime minister with a vote of at least 61 of 120 members.