Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has pleaded not guilty as his trial on corruption charges resumed in a Jerusalem courtroom just weeks before national elections in which he hopes to extend his 12-year rule.
Netanyahu was indicted last year for fraud, breach of trust and accepting bribes in three separate cases. In recent months, Israelis have held weekly protests calling on him to resign over the charges and criticising his government's response to the coronavirus crisis.
Protesters gathered outside the courthouse could be heard inside the room where the hearing was being held on Monday.
He stands accused of accepting lavish gifts from wealthy friends and offering to grant favours to powerful media moguls in exchange for favourable coverage of him and his family.
The latest hearing was postponed last month due to lockdown restrictions on public gatherings.
Israel's longest-serving leader is also the first sitting prime minister to go on trial for corruption.
Netanyahu has denied any wrongdoing and dismissed the charges against him as a witch hunt orchestrated by biased law enforcement and media.
At Monday's hearing in a heavily-guarded Jerusalem District Court, Netanyahu's lawyers submitted a written response pleading not guilty, arguing the attorney-general had not properly approved the investigations in writing.
After about 20 minutes, Netanyahu left the courtroom without explanation and his motorcade departed.
The hearing continued in his absence, with his lawyers arguing for more than an hour that constitutional procedures had not been followed.
The judges appeared sceptical and repeatedly called on the defence lawyers to wrap it up.
Outside the courthouse, about 150 protesters chanted against Netanyahu. Many carried banners reading "Crime Minister".
At the start of his trial last May, Netanyahu said it aimed to "depose a strong, right-wing prime minister and thus remove the nationalist camp from the leadership of the country for many years".
Netanyahu has served as Israel's prime minister since 2009 and in the past two years has hung on to power through three tumultuous, deadlocked elections.
His flimsy ruling coalition collapsed in December and he now faces a major battle for re-election in March 23 parliamentary elections.
Netanyahu hopes to campaign on having pulled the country out of the pandemic through one of the world's most successful vaccination campaigns.
Polls show Netanyahu's Likud winning the most seats but struggling to form a 61-seat majority coalition.
DPA with Reuters and AP