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Netanyahu: Israel's longest serving leader
04:26 - Source: CNN
Jerusalem CNN  — 

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s criminal trial is set to begin March 17, just two weeks after Israel’s elections, the Justice Ministry announced Tuesday.

The trial will begin one day after the country’s newly elected parliament is sworn in and in the middle of coalition negotiations, as Israel tries to break a year-long political deadlock.

Netanyahu faces one charge of bribery and three charges of fraud and breach of trust in three separate corruption investigations. The Prime Minister is required to be present at Jerusalem District Court on the first day of trial, which will be presided over by three judges.

The 70-year-old Israeli leader has denied wrongdoing, calling the cases an “attempted coup” and a media-fueled witch hunt. Under Israeli law, Netanyahu is not required to step down unless he is convicted and that conviction is upheld throughout the appeals process.

Election polls have repeatedly shown that neither Netanyahu nor his rival Benny Gantz, the former chief of staff of the Israeli military who leads the Blue and White party, has a clear path to forming a 61-seat coalition.The polls have barely shifted since the last election in September, when both Netanyahu and Gantz failed to form a government.

A similar result in the March 2 elections may push Israel toward a fourth election later this year – the fourth since April 2019 – which could also prove indecisive, leaving Israel in the same political limbo in which it has been since Christmas Eve 2018.

Netanyahu is the first sitting prime minister in Israel’s history to be indicted, but the corruption cases have done little to erode his voter base. He won a leadership contest within his own Likud party by a landslide, securing his position at the helm of the party he has led for more than a decade. In addition, he has already secured the support of the religious and right-wing parties.

But even that support has left him short of a government in two straight elections, as he tries to convince voters to focus on his accomplishments from his 14 years in office and ignore the imminent trial.

“While [Likud voters] may not cross the line and vote for another party, they very well may stay home and not vote at all,” Israel Democracy Institute President Yohanan Plesner told CNN.

In coalition negotiations following the last election, Netanyahu was unable to garner any support from the centrist or left-wing parties, who refused to stand behind a prime minister facing indictment. The announcement of the trial date, especially so soon after the election, will entrench that position.

“We saw how difficult it was after September’s election for anyone outside of Netanyahu’s right-wing bloc to agree to join his government. The fact that during the coalition negotiations Netanyahu’s trial will actually commence is sure to solidify this opposition,” said Plesner.