While rejecting Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s request to delay a hearing in his corruption trial scheduled for next week, the Jerusalem District Court on Wednesday evening signaled a potential problem in the prosecution’s case, by ordering the attorney general to hand over “without delay” documents proving he had authorized opening a criminal investigation into the premier.
Next week’s hearing had been set to focus on Netanyahu’s response to the criminal indictment against him. But the prime minister’s defense team had asked for more time to respond to the recently resubmitted indictments and to Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit’s acknowledgment that he authorized the criminal probes against the premier verbally, but not in writing.
The Jerusalem court, in its Wednesday decision, rejected the defense team’s request to postpone the heading, but it also ordered Mandelblit to immediately hand over documentation proving he authorized the investigations.
The attorney general had referred to internal documentation from meetings that underlined his approval of the investigations, but didn’t attach those documents to his response to the court, the judges noted.
The attorney general must hand over that evidence “without delay,” the ruling said, adding that the state can redact confidential information.
Netanyahu faces charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust in Case 4000, which involves suspicions that Netanyahu granted regulatory favors benefitting Shaul Elovitch, the controlling shareholder of Bezeq telecoms, in exchange for positive coverage of the prime minister and his family from the Bezeq-owned Walla news site. Elovitch and his wife, Iris, also face bribery charges in the case.
Netanyahu also faces charges of fraud and breach of trust in Case 1000 as well as in Case 2000. The former involves suspicions Netanyahu illicitly accepted some $200,000 in gifts such as cigars and champagne from two billionaires — Hollywood-based Israeli movie mogul Arnon Milchan and Australian magnate James Packer.
In Case 2000, Netanyahu is accused of attempting to reach a quid pro quo with Yedioth Ahronoth publisher Arnon Mozes for positive media coverage in exchange for legislation weakening rival newspaper Israel Hayom. Mozes was charged with bribery in the case.
His lawyers have repeatedly moved to delay and discredit the proceedings, filing complaints against the prosecution, alleging “criminal tactics” had been used against them, calling for changing the indictment against the prime minister, and claiming that police investigators had used illegitimate means to secure evidence, thus disqualifying the charges.
But most recently, Netanyahu’s lawyers have argued that Mandelblit’s lack of written consent is a breach of Israel’s Basic Laws that invalidates the entire case and have called for the charges to be canceled. The attorney general, however, has said there is no legal requirement for the authorization to be in written form.
The lawyers had asked that next week’s hearing focus on their own request to cancel the indictment altogether due to the alleged lack of formal approval for the investigation. According to the law, investigations into a prime minister need prior approval from the attorney general.
Had the court accepted the demand, it would have meant that Netanyahu and the rest of the defendants didn’t have to attend the January 13 hearing in person.
The defense team also argued that a recently filed amended charge sheet in Case 4000, which details over 200 alleged cases of intervention by Netanyahu or his associates in the Walla news site’s coverage as part of an alleged bribery deal, contains “substantial and relevant details for the defendants’ defense” that merit the postponement.
In a potential bombshell, the lawyers also said Netanyahu was weighing using this additional time — and the claim that the police investigations went ahead without the attorney general’s okay — to again seek parliamentary immunity, after he gave up a similar bid last year when it became clear he would fail to muster a majority.
The current Knesset seems even less likely to support such a motion — though the makeup of parliament following the upcoming March election is of course up in the air.
Netanyahu’s trial opened in May. Though the prime minister attended the first hearing, he was granted an exemption from appearing at later, largely procedural stages of the trial.
Netanyahu, who is the first Israeli premier to be indicted while in office, denies any wrongdoing and has railed against the courts, prosecution, and media for what he terms a “witch hunt.”