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Evidence stage of Netanyahu’s trial postponed until after elections

Court rejects defense request to cancel indictments; hearings to begin on April 5, less than two weeks after national vote, will be held three times a week

Raoul Wootliff is the The Times of Israel's political correspondent.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu arrives a hearing in his corruption case at the Jerusalem District Court, February 8, 2021. (Reuven Kastro/POOL)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu arrives a hearing in his corruption case at the Jerusalem District Court, February 8, 2021. (Reuven Kastro/POOL)

The Jerusalem District Court announced Monday night that it was postponing the evidentiary stage of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s corruption trial until April 5, ceding to a request by the premier’s legal team for the proceedings to start after the March 23 elections.

Hearings will be held three times a week, from Monday through Wednesday, from 9 a.m. until 3:30 p.m., the court said.

At the same time, the judges in the case rejected a demand by Netanyahu’s attorneys to cancel the criminal indictments against the premier over the attorney general’s apparent failure to approve the criminal investigations in writing.

“After reviewing and examining the parties’ arguments, we came to the general conclusion that no clear reason arose for the dismissal of the indictment,” the judges wrote in their ruling.

The court nonetheless chided Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit for the oversight, acknowledging a “defect” in the legal procedures. The defense had argued that the lack of formal, written approval by Mandelblit for the opening of the probes discredits the cases against the premier.

“It would have been appropriate for the attorney general, as an administrative authority, to give his consent to the opening of investigations (including preliminary investigations) in the case of the accused, by way of giving written approval,” the judges wrote.

Earlier this month, under heavy security and after several delays due to the coronavirus lockdown, Netanyahu made a brief, mandatory appearance at the Jerusalem District Court for a hearing at which he formally pleaded not guilty to the three charges against him, and his lawyers then sought a postponement of further sessions.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu arrives for a court hearing at the District Court in Jerusalem on February 8, 2021. Netanyahu is charged with fraud and breach of trust in three cases and bribery in one of them. (Reuven Kastro/POOL)

Netanyahu’s lawyers said the massive scale of the arguments and allegations in the case required a delay in the start of the evidentiary stage of three or four months.

Speaking after appearing in court to formally deny the charges, Netanyahu warned that it would be a “crude intervention in the elections” if the evidentiary phase of the trial were to go ahead before the national vote, which is scheduled to take place in just a month’s time.

“I think everyone knows the cases against me are fabricated. But we learned today that they’re not even completed fabrications. Lots of things are missing, even from the prosecution’s point of view,” Netanyahu said.

“It doesn’t seem to me that they’ll hurry [in court] to the evidentiary stage before the elections. In any case, that would be seen — even if that’s not the intention — as crude intervention in the elections,” he said.

Netanyahu’s trial opened last May. Though the prime minister attended the first hearing, he was granted an exemption from appearing at later, largely procedural stages of the trial.

The premier’s 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 rendering the charges moot.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) speaks with his lawyer Amir Hadad prior to a hearing at the Jerusalem District Court, February 8, 2021. (Reuven Castro/AP)

Netanyahu faces charges of bribery, fraud, and breach of trust in Case 4000, which involves suspicions that he granted regulatory favors benefiting 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. The Elovitches also face bribery charges in the case.

Netanyahu also faces charges of fraud and breach of trust in Case 1000 and 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.

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.” He alleges the state prosecution, police, media and opposition are framing him in an attempted political coup.

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