Netanyahu trial divides Israelis

Alexandra Vardi and Jonah Mandel
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The trial of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for corruption has divided Israelis with supporters describing him as a 'pure and clean' and opponents accusing him of 'taking the country hostage'

The trial of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for corruption has divided Israelis with supporters describing him as a 'pure and clean' and opponents accusing him of 'taking the country hostage' (AFP Photo/Menahem KAHANA)

Jerusalem (AFP) - "Netanyahu, you will never be alone," the man screamed into a microphone near the Jerusalem court where the Israeli prime minister on Sunday attended the start of his trial for corruption.

He was among a few hundred supporters of Benjamin Netanyahu, who had gathered to show solidarity with the premier nicknamed "Bibi", while elsewhere an anti-Netanyahu protest was underway.

Netanyahu's supporters even held up signs comparing the trial to the Dreyfus affair which had divided France in the late 19th century, triggering a national crisis over anti-Semitism.

Backers of the prime minister included Mali, who travelled 70 kilometres (50 miles) from commercial capital Tel Aviv to defend the man she calls a "genius".

"The justice system is working against him," she said, wearing a bandana in the blue and white colours of the Israeli flag.

A supporter of Netanyahu's right-wing Likud party, she said she wanted to "fight to ensure a just trial because Benjamin Netanyahu is pure and clean".

"It feels like not only Benjamin Netanyahu is on trial but all of us (right-wingers)."

Netanyahu, 70, was indicted in January for bribery, fraud and breach of trust in three cases.

He denies all the charges and accuses the media and legal officials of a witch hunt.

One of these cases, called "4000" or "Bezeq", after an Israeli telecommunications group, is particularly sensitive.

Netanyahu is accused of offering regulatory changes worth millions in profits to Bezeq's owner in exchange for favourable media coverage from a news site he also owned.

Netanyahu, who formed a new unity government earlier this month with former rival Benny Gantz after months of political battle, says he has not done anything wrong.

- Champagne -

But his detractors refuse to accept his denials.

Across from the prime minister's official residence in Jerusalem, a few hundred rallied waving the Israeli colours and black flags in protest at what they called "the death of democracy."

"I am ashamed," read one placard in white letters on a black background, as demonstrators chanted slogans against Netanyahu.

He is "taking the country hostage" said Dalia Hazon, who said that she made a 90-kilometre bus trip to come and protest.

She said Netanyahu "must resign" and defend himself.

As the trial got underway at 3.00 pm (1200 GMT), protesters beating drums increased the pace.

"Louder, louder," shouted the crowd.

"I am very worried," said Yoav Eitan, 39. "I think that Bibi has no constraints and will do anything not to go to prison."

The longest-serving premier in Israeli history, Netanyahu is a master of political survival despite electoral challenges and legal woes.

"I'm here with a straight back and my head held high," he said as he arrived in court Sunday.

The trial is expected to last months or even years.

As the trial began an anti-Netanyahu protester climbed onto a car roof and opened a bottle of champagne.

"To democracy!" he cried. "We shall not be broken."