Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu claimed, apparently falsely, during a prime-time television interview on Saturday that reports have described as “leftists” the judges who will preside over the three corruption cases against him, and demanded a denial of the alleged claim.
Last month, Jerusalem District Court President Aharon Farkash revealed that the members of the three-judge panel that will hear Netanyahu’s cases will be chairwoman Rivka Friedman-Feldman along with Moshe Bar-Am and Oded Shaham.
The prime minister has in recent years intensified his attacks on law enforcement bodies in light of the criminal investigations against him, accusing police, the state prosecution, the left and the media of conducting a “witch hunt” against him and relentlessly pressuring a “weak” attorney general to charge him.
During a Channel 12 appearance, interviewer Rina Matzliah asked Netanyahu whether the selected judges now need to prepare for similar personal attacks.
“Actually, I have faith in the Israeli courts,” Netanyahu said as a preface, before indicating that personal attacks on his judges were indeed likely in the future: “I hope that what some have written, that the judges are leftists and were carefully handpicked — I expect a denial on that matter.”
No news sites, not even those extremely supportive of Netanyahu, are known to have claimed that any of the judges hold left-wing views.
Asked who he expects to issue the denial, Netanyahu answered: “The Courts Administration can comment on that. But I believe in the courts, I think Israel has some of the world’s best courts.”
Netanyahu’s corruption trial will open two weeks after Israelis head to the ballot box Monday for the third time in under a year.
The Justice Ministry last month announced that the trial will begin on March 17 at 3 p.m.
On January 28, Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit filed an indictment against Netanyahu with the Jerusalem District Court, charging the premier with fraud and breach of trust in Cases 1000 and 2000, and bribery, fraud and breach of trust in Case 4000. Netanyahu is the first serving prime minister in Israel’s history to face criminal charges. According to several media reports Friday, Netanyahu may seek to dismiss Mandelblit or to seriously discredit him after next week’s election.
All three judges in the premier’s trial have served on the Jerusalem District Court since 2012.
Friedman-Feldman was previously involved in the trial of former prime minister Ehud Olmert when she was a member of a similar three-judge panel that in 2014 overturned his acquittal in a bribery case and sentenced him to eight months in prison.
Olmert was sentenced to a total of 27 months for convictions in three corruption trials, of which he eventually served 16 months until his release in 2017. Olmert had resigned as prime minister before the trials started, and in a 2018 book blamed “right-wing extremist forces” for his downfall.
Netanyahu is fighting for his political survival, facing a tough challenge from rival Blue and White leader Benny Gantz, though neither has a clear path to forming a majority coalition without the other, according to recent polls.
Despite the looming trial, Netanyahu’s right-wing and religious allies have reaffirmed their loyalty to the long-serving prime minister, vowing they will recommend only him for premier.
Netanyahu’s trial will interrupt political jockeying to form a coalition following the election.
The filing of charges in January came hours after Netanyahu announced that he was withdrawing his request for parliamentary immunity from prosecution in the cases against him.
Case 1000 involves accusations that Netanyahu received gifts and benefits from billionaire benefactors including Israeli-born Hollywood producer Arnon Milchan in exchange for favors. In this case, Mandelblit charged Netanyahu with fraud and breach of trust — the latter being a somewhat murkily defined offense relating to an official violating the trust the public has placed in him.
In Case 2000, involving accusations Netanyahu agreed with Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper publisher Arnon Mozes to weaken the circulation of a rival daily in return for more favorable coverage from Yedioth, Mandelblit charged the premier with fraud and breach of trust, while Mozes will be charged with bribery.
In Case 4000, widely seen as the most serious against the premier, Netanyahu is accused of having advanced regulatory decisions that benefited Shaul Elovitch, the controlling shareholder in the Bezeq telecom giant, in exchange for positive coverage from the Elovitch-owned Walla news site. In that case Mandelblit is charging Netanyahu and Elovitch with bribery.
Netanyahu denies any wrongdoing, and claims the indictment is an attempt at a political coup, orchestrated by the media, the opposition, police and state prosecutors.