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Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visits an observation tent at the Chaim Sheba Medical Centre at Tel Hashomer for discussions about the Coronavirus, in Ramat Gan, Israel, Wednesday. Image Credit: AP

Occupied Jerusalem: The criminal trial for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will begin March 17, court officials announced Tuesday, shaking up the final stretch of a contentious election campaign and hurting the longtime Israeli leader’s hopes of forming a new government after the vote.

The announcement means that Netanyahu will appear in the occupied Jerusalem court as a defendant just two weeks after the March 2 election. After a campaign in which Netanyahu has worked feverishly to divert attention from his legal woes, the final days of the race are almost certain to play into the hands of his opponents by focusing on the looming trial.

Netanyahu was indicted in November on charges of fraud, breach of trust and accepting bribes in connection to a series of scandals. He is accused of accepting lavish gifts from billionaire friends and offering regulatory favours to local media moguls in exchange for positive news coverage. Netanyahu, Israel’s longest-serving prime minister, has denied any wrongdoing.

In a brief statement, the court said Netanyahu is expected to attend the initial hearing.

The March 2 election is Israel’s third in under a year. Like the previous elections in April and September, the upcoming vote is seen largely as a personal referendum on Netanyahu.

The previous elections ended in deadlock, with both Netanyahu’s Likud Party and the rival Blue and White, led by former military chief Benny Gantz, unable to secure parliamentary majorities. Opinion polls have predicted a similar outcome in the third.

Gantz said it was a “sad” development that would prevent Netanyahu from focusing on his duties as prime minister.

“Netanyahu will be preoccupied with himself alone. He will not be in a position to look out for the interests of Israel’s citizens,” he said.

Netanyahu responded to Gantz’s remarks by criticising him without directly addressing the trial.

Netanyahu is desperate to remain as prime minister, a position he can use as a bully pulpit to rally public support. He has repeatedly sought to portray himself as the victim of a witch hunt by overzealous police, hostile prosecutors and the media.

With the exception of the prime minister, Israeli law requires public officials to resign if charged with a crime. That means that if Netanyahu is forced to give up his position, he would go on trial as a private citizen. Netanyahu last month gave up an attempt to seek immunity from prosecution after concluding he did not have enough support in parliament.

Throughout the current campaign, Netanyahu has gone to great lengths to make voters forget about his trial. Instead, he has sought to painted himself as a global statesman uniquely qualified to lead the country through tumultuous times.

He boasts of Israel’s emergence as a natural gas exporter, his strategy of confronting archenemy Iran and closer ties with some Arab states.

But more than anything, he points to his close friendship with President Donald Trump, bragging that it gives Israel a unique opportunity to push its international agenda. Just three weeks ago, Netanyahu was welcomed at the White House for a festive event unveiling Trump’s long-awaited Mideast plan. The plan greatly favourred Israel at the expense of the Palestinians.