Israeli PM Netanyahu's trial to start March 17

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Netanyahu denies the charges and says he is the victim of a politically motivated witch-hunt

Israeli Prime Benjamin Netanyahu's corruption trial will open on March 17, just two weeks after the embattled leader tries to secure re-election, officials said Tuesday.

Netanyahu, Israel's longest-serving premier and the first to be indicted while in office, has been charged with bribery, fraud and breach of trust.

He denies all wrongdoing.

In a statement, the justice ministry said judge Rivka Friedman-Feldman would read out the indictment in Jerusalem, in the presence of Netanyahu.

The trial, including all possible appeals, could take years.

Israeli law says that government ministers who are subject to criminal prosecution must resign.

But this does not apply to the prime minister, meaning no legal barriers are likely to prevent Netanyahu, 70, from remaining in office should his right-wing Likud win enough seats to form a government.

The March 2 poll is Israel's third in less than a year, after two previous votes resulted in a deadlock between Netanyahu and his rival Benny Gantz.

Neither was able to form a coalition despite having the two biggest parties in the 120-seat Knesset (parliament).

Gantz had refused after September elections to join a unity government led by Netanyahu, saying the prime minister must settle his differences with the judiciary before taking power.

The retired general said Tuesday it was "unacceptable that a prime minister could lead the country and manage three legal cases against him at the same time."

"On March 17, his mandate ends and the trial begins. Netanyahu will not be able to take care of the Israeli people as well as his own affairs," Gantz told a meeting of his centrist Blue and White party.

- Impact on voters? -

Experts are uncertain whether the indictment will damage Netanyahu's support among voters, with recent polls pointing to another tight race.

"Netanyahu skillfully managed to frame the issues he has been charged with as... not real corruption," the president of the Israel Democracy Institute think-tank, Johan Plesner, told AFP.

Plesner said Netanyahu had succeeded in convincing the majority of his political base that his conduct amounts to legitimate political "wheeling and dealing," not serious misuse of public resources.

Netanyahu and his family are accused of receiving gifts including luxury cigars, champagne and jewellery from wealthy individuals, estimated to be worth more than 700,000 shekels ($204,000, 189,000 euros), in exchange for financial or personal favours.

He has also been accused of seeking a deal with the owner of the Yediot Aharonot newspaper that would have seen it give him more favourable coverage.

In exchange, the prime minister allegedly offered to push for legislation that would hurt the paper's main competitor.

A third allegation, the most serious, is that Netanyahu offered mogul Shaul Elovitch regulatory changes worth millions of dollars to his telecoms giant Bezeq in exchange for positive coverage on Elovitch's Walla! news website.

Shlomo Filber, a Netanyahu ally for more than 20 years and a former communications ministry director general, has become a state witness in that investigation.

Israeli Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit formally presented the charge sheet last month after Netanyahu withdrew a request seeking parliamentary immunity.

His opponents had already mustered a majority in the legislature to deny him immunity.

Netanyahu denies the charges and says he is the victim of a politically motivated witch-hunt

Retired army general Benny Gantz (L) is hoping to beat indicted Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) in elections on March 2