After opening day of trial, Netanyahu unlikely to be in court again this year

After opening day of trial, Netanyahu unlikely to be in court again this year

Judges excuses defendants from being present at next session, in July, on preliminary requests; PM’s lawyers jockeying for further delays, saying they need more time to prepare

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu  gives a press statement ahead of the start of his trial at the District Court in Jerusalem on May 24, 2020.(Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gives a press statement ahead of the start of his trial at the District Court in Jerusalem on May 24, 2020.(Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

After the tumultuous first day of his trial, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu won a small reprieve that makes it unlikely he will have to show up in person again for several more months, and possibly not even until next year.

Ahead of Sunday’s hearing, where the defendants had to confirm that they understood the charges against them, Netanyahu had requested, and been refused, permission to not attend. Seeking to avoid a repeat of that, the judges suggested that the defendants be excused from the next, largely procedural stages of trial.

The lawyers for Netanyahu and his co-defendants — Arnon Mozes, publisher of the Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper; Shaul Elovitch, controlling shareholder of the Bezeq telecommunications company; and Elovitch’s wife, Iris Elovitch — immediately agreed and deputy state attorney Liat Ben-Ari then said she didn’t have an issue with the defendants not being present at the next session on preliminary requests.

Judges Rebecca Friedman-Feldman, Moshe Bar-Am and Oded Shaham then ruled that the defendants would not have to return to court until the evidence stage, where they will need to enter an innocent or guilty plea.

Deputy state attorney Liat Ben-Ari arrives at the District Court in Jerusalem, ahead of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s trial on May 24, 2020.(Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Netanyahu said Sunday evening that he would not accept a plea bargain.

Having repeatedly lambasted the criminal charges against him as “fabricated” and claimed that the justice system was trying to oust him for political reasons, including during a lengthy speech before entering the Jerusalem District Court hearing, Netanyahu spoke in the evening with the right-wing Channel 20, answering “no, no way,” when asked if he would take a deal.

Netanyahu, who denies wrongdoing, faces charges of fraud and breach of trust in all three of the cases against him, as well as bribery in one of them.

In the bribery case, Netanyahu is accused of pushing regulatory favors for Elovitch’s benefit in exchange for positive media coverage. He is also accused of attempting to reach a quid pro quo with Mozes for positive media coverage and of taking expensive gifts from wealthy benefactors in the two other cases, which are considered less serious.

The next hearing will take place on July 19 when the legal teams will update the judges on how they are progressing in dealing with the material of the cases.

It is not clear if the sides will need to respond to the charges before the court goes on hiatus on August 11, or only after it returns on September 1.

Sunday’s debate already saw Netanyahu’s legal team jockeying for more time.

Netanyahu lawyer Micha Fettman told the judges that the size of the cases meant that he needed extra time to hire more lawyers and then three or four months for them to go over the cases.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his lawyer Micha Fettman (L) at the Jerusalem District Court for the start of his trial on corruption charges, May 24, 2020. (Amit Shabi/Pool/Flash90)

The makeup of Netanyahu’s legal team has been hampered by the Permits Committee at the State Comptroller’s Office repeatedly rejecting the prime minister’s request to accept donations from wealthy benefactors for his legal expenses and instructing him to return funds he had already received.

But in February the committee — with a different makeup — said it would once again consider allowing the premier to receive outside funding for his legal expenses, which would likely bring about changes in the makeup of his team.

Ben-Ari dismissed the defense’s request for three to four months to go over the evidence before moving forward with the trial.

“Had we started today I would have said we need three to four months [to study the materials], but this case was not born today. On February 28, 2019, the attorney general decided to file an indictment pending the hearing. Since then, a year and four months have passed,” Ben Ari said.

According to legal sources, the judges are likely to allow the defense six to eight months to study all the material – and, accordingly, set deadlines for proof for the next court year. Channel 12 said it was very likely that Netanyahu and his co-defendants would not have to be back in court before some time in 2021.

And then, with 333 prosecution witnesses listed in the indictment, including a veritable who’s who of Netanyahu associates and confidants, Israeli security chiefs, politicians and journalists, the real circus will begin.

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