JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Benjamin Netanyahu on Sunday became the first serving Israeli prime minister to go on trial, proclaiming his innocence in the corridor before walking into court to face charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust.

The trial came a week after Israel’s longest-serving leader was sworn in to a record fifth term, demonstrating his knack for survival by securing an unexpected power-sharing deal with his main opponent after three inconclusive elections in a year. He says the cases against him are a left-wing plot to unseat him.

Netanyahu, 70, was indicted in November in cases involving gifts from millionaire friends and for allegedly seeking regulatory favours for media tycoons in return for favourable coverage.

He appeared at Jerusalem District Court flanked by a clutch of cabinet ministers from his right-wing Likud party.

In the courtroom, Netanyahu and the judges wore face masks because of the coronavirus crisis. One of the judges asked Netanyahu whether he had read and understood the indictment. He replied: “Yes, your Honour.”

The hearing lasted an hour. The court excused Netanyahu from appearing in person at the next hearing, set for July 19. Israeli analysts say the trial could last months or even years.

Before the hearing, Netanyahu appealed to public opinion, taking off his mask to address television cameras in the courthouse hallway.

“These investigations were tainted and stitched-up from the first moment,” Netanyahu said. “I am appearing here today, as your prime minister, standing tall and with head high,” he said.

In a statement, Attorney-General Avichai Mandelblit said prosecutors “will continue to conduct themselves without fear, even given the preposterous attempt - which should be rejected out of hand - to ascribe ulterior motives to law-enforcement authorities”.

Supporters, some in masks, rallied outside the East Jerusalem building, their chants of “Bibi, King of Israel”, using his nickname, audible in the courthouse. One supporter’s sign read: “You’ll never walk alone”. Many waved blue-and-white Israeli flags.

Slideshow (3 Images)

Anti-Netanyahu demonstrators gathered outside his residence in central Jerusalem holding up a banner reading “Crime Minister,” a slogan that also appeared on some face masks.

Netanyahu, in power now for 11 straight years plus three in the 1990s, kept the position of prime minister by securing the power-sharing deal last month with his main opponent, the centrist former general Benny Gantz.

The pact also opens the way for Netanyahu to proceed towards a pledged annexation of parts of the occupied West Bank, land that Palestinians envisage as part of a future independent state.

Bribery charges carry a sentence of up to 10 years in jail and/or a fine. Fraud and breach of trust carry a prison sentence of up to three years.

Writing by Jeffrey Heller; Editing by Dan Williams and Peter Graff

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