Court rejects Netanyahu bid to postpone trial, requires him to attend next week
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Court rejects Netanyahu bid to postpone trial, requires him to attend next week

PM had sought 45-day postponement; will have to be present at the Jerusalem District Court when charges are read out on March 17

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu holds a videoconference with European leaders in order to discuss challenges and cooperation in dealing with the coronavirus, at the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem, on March 9, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu holds a videoconference with European leaders in order to discuss challenges and cooperation in dealing with the coronavirus, at the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem, on March 9, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The Jerusalem District Court on Tuesday rejected Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s request to delay the start of his corruption trial, saying that the first session will go ahead as planned next week.

Netanyahu is required to be present at the court on March 17 when the charges against him will be read out, the court also made clear. He faces fraud and breach of trust charges in two cases, and bribery, fraud and breach of trust charges in a third.

The prime minister’s attorneys had asked for the delay, saying they did not have all of the files for the cases.

But Judge Rivka Friedman-Feldman, who leads the three-judge panel that will try Netanyahu, reasoned that since the first session is only for the purpose of reading out the charges, the defense does not need to prepare a response.

“Accordingly, there are no grounds for justifying the postponement of the hearing,” she ruled.

Jerusalem District Court Judge Rivka Friedman-Feldman. (Israeli Judicial Authority)

Claiming they had not yet received all of the case material from the state prosecution, the prime minister’s lawyers asked the court on Monday for a 45-day continuance “in order for [the state prosecution] to transfer all of the case materials to the defense (as we have requested), and to give the defense time to receive them and develop an assessment.”

Explaining the request, the chief attorney for Netanyahu’s defense, Amit Hadad, said in a statement, “A few months ago an indictment was filed against the prime minister, yet until now we have not received the material. Therefore, we applied to the court with a technical request to delay the date of the hearing, so that we can first receive the investigation material — and only afterwards appear in court.”

According to a report in the Haaretz daily, the delay in delivering the material hinges on a dispute between Netanyahu’s attorneys and prosecutors on how the documents should be handed over. Although the state prosecution has prepared the files, Netanyahu’s attorneys are demanding the documents be scanned and digitized, the report said.

Prosecutors told the court they objected to the request to postpone the hearing.

Netanyahu, in November, became Israel’s first sitting prime minister with charges against him, when Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit announced he would indict him for bribery, fraud and breach of trust — though the charges were only filed officially in January, when the prime minister dropped a bid for Knesset immunity. Netanyahu denies the charges and claims he is the victim of an attempted “political coup” involving the opposition, media, police and state prosecutors.

The charges were filed following the pre-indictment hearings in October. Those hearings were postponed from the initial scheduled date of July 10 — three months after the investigation material was made available to Netanyahu’s lawyers, who took more than a month to collect it.

They had asked the attorney general for a full-year delay, arguing that the scope of the documents was too large to review in three months. Mandelblit refused that request, saying it was not in the public interest.

Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit attends an event at the Dan Hotel in Jerusalem on February 6, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Mandelblit had in February 2019 announced his intention to indict Netanyahu, pending a hearing, in the three cases against him. The prime minister’s attorneys requested, and were granted, that the case files not be handed over prior to the April 9 national election in order to prevent information from leaking to the media and affecting the vote.

But after the election, the lawyers refrained from collecting the material for another month, citing a dispute over their fees. They were accused at the time of engaging in delay tactics.

The April election failed to produce a majority government, as did a followup vote in September. A third round of voting last week has still not broken the political deadlock.

On Sunday President Reuven Rivlin will conduct consultations with party leaders on their recommendations for who should be given first chance to form a government. Netanyahu’s suitability for selection, even though his Likud party won the most seats in the election, has been challenged in court.

The Movement for Quality Government in Israel filed a petition with the High Court of Justice last week arguing that Netanyahu should not be allowed to form the next government as he faces trial on criminal charges. However, the court rejected the petition because it was filed before the election results were finalized, a process completed earlier Tuesday.

Raoul Wootliff contributed to this report.

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