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Courts to expand activity, greenlighting start of Netanyahu corruption trial

After COVID-19 restrictions eased, judge tells Bar Association many activities will resume May 3, meaning no impediment to starting PM’s trial as currently scheduled on May 24

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu holds a press conference at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem on March 16, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu holds a press conference at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem on March 16, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The courts administration announced Wednesday that in the wake of an easing of coronavirus restrictions it would be expanding its activities from May 3, meaning there was no impediment to starting the corruption trial of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Netanyahu’s trial was pushed off by two months, two days before the scheduled March 17 opening hearing, after Justice Minister Amir Ohana declared a “state of emergency” in the court system in light of the coronavirus pandemic.

That meant that courts could only sit for urgent hearings on arrest and remand orders, administrative detention orders, offenses under legislation “relating to the special emergency” and certain interim relief in civil matters.

But in a letter Wednesday to the Israel Bar Association, District Court President Judge Yigal Mersel said that from May 3, the courts would be hearing an expanded range of cases, including criminal ones.

Mersel said the decision was taken after the government eased the coronavirus restrictions earlier this week.

Netanayahu’s case is now set to start on May 24.

The prime minister faces seven counts of three criminal charges: fraud and breach of trust in Cases 1000 and 2000, and bribery, fraud and breach of trust in Case 4000.

Netanyahu in November became Israel’s first sitting prime minister with charges against him, when Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit announced he would indict him. The charges were only filed officially in January, when the prime minister dropped a bid for Knesset immunity.

Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit at a press conference at the Justice Ministry in Jerusalem announcing his decision to indict Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for bribery, fraud and breach of trust, November 21, 2019. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Netanyahu denies the charges and claims he is the victim of an attempted “political coup” involving the opposition, media, police and state prosecutors.

The Jerusalem District Court previously rejected Netanyahu’s request to delay the start of the corruption trial.

On Monday, Netanyahu signed a unity government agreement with Blue and White party leader Benny Gantz that includes clauses addressing a possible High Court move to block Netanyahu from being prime minister.

Netanyahu is concerned that the court may rule that he cannot serve as prime minister due to the criminal charges against him, a development that could theoretically leave Gantz as premier for the entire term of the joint coalition.

Under the deal, however, were the court to disqualify Netanyahu as prime minister in the first six months of the new coalition’s lifespan, there would be new elections. The agreement is not definitive on what would happen in the relatively unlikely event that the court were to issue a ruling after that period.

The court has hitherto refused to rule on petitions regarding this issue, arguing that the situation was theoretical. But it is now being asked to consider petitions on this and other aspects of the unity deal.

The deal was also repeatedly held up over disagreements over the makeup and mechanics of the Judicial Appointments Committee, which installs judges, with Netanyahu demanding veto power over nominations.

Under the agreement, Likud ensured right-wing veto power on the panel, with the appointment of Blue and White’s MK Zvi Hauser, a former cabinet secretary under Netanyahu.

Though a right-wing conservative who is unlikely to back judicial activism, Hauser has also been critical of attacks on the courts and is considered by Gantz and his allies to be a defender of the judiciary’s independence.

Meanwhile Blue and White’s Avi Nissenkorn is set to be appointed justice minister, replacing the firebrand Likud loyalist Ohana who had made a habit of attacking the courts and the state prosecution.

As Knesset speaker, Gantz had threatened to advance legislation earlier Monday that would disqualify Netanyahu from continuing to serve as prime minister due to his upcoming corruption trial, a move that Likud had warned would sink the prospects of an agreement for good.

Blue and White leader Benny Gantz (left) and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sign their unity government agreement on April 20, 2020. (GPO)
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