A Likud minister reportedly torpedoed a proposed regulation that would have allowed Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s trial in three corruption cases to take place via videoconferencing software despite restrictions on court activity during the coronavirus pandemic.
Regulations introduced to try to prevent the spread of the virus have included various limitations on the court system, said to be aiming to prevent an outbreak in the prison system and due to restrictions on the number of people allowed to gather in any one place. One proposal, however, has been that trials be allowed to take place via videoconferencing, the Haaretz daily reported.
Tourism Minister Yariv Levin this week appealed to Justice Minister Amir Ohana and Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan and asked that videoconferencing only be used for the trials of defendants who are in custody, Haaretz reported.
Levin told the newspaper that this was due to a position he has long championed that defendants should be physically present for hearings, and has nothing to do with the Netanyahu case.
In a statement, the minister’s office said Levin is “in principle opposed to the use of videoconference in criminal proceedings,” adding that “this has been his position for many years since this idea came up.” There were apparently documents attached to the statement that backed up this claim. But “the minister is very much in favor of transferring a large part of civil proceedings to videoconference, which can save valuable time for everyone,” the statement read.
In addition, he said that “curtailments of liberty must be done face to face. The coronavirus creates a situation that is dangerous for holding discussions face to face. Therefore what is necessary and urgent can be done with video and the rest can wait.”
A statement made on behalf of Ohana stated that Levin’s arguments were accepted given that it was his longstanding position.
Netanyahu’s trial was pushed off by two months, two days before the scheduled March 17 opening hearing.
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.
A day before the hearing was canceled, Ohana declared a “state of emergency” in the court system in light of the coronavirus pandemic, which meant that courts can 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.
Ohana, a Likud MK and Netanyahu loyalist, who was appointed to the post by the premier last June in an acting capacity to replace Ayelet Shaked, has become a vocal critic of the courts and the criminal cases against the prime minister.
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.
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.
Raoul Wootliff contributed to this report.