Under heavy security and after several delays due to the coronavirus lockdown, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu arrived Monday morning at the Jerusalem District Court for a much-anticipated hearing in his corruption trial, focusing on his and other defendants’ response to the indictments and kicking off the intensified evidentiary phase of the trial.
After formally denying the charges against him and receiving permission from the judges to leave, Netanyahu stood up some 20 minutes into the discussion, thanked the bench and left the court. Unlike during the opening of his trial last year, the premier made no statement to the media before or after his court appearance, nor did he make any statement online.
The hearing ended some four hours later, without an immediate decision on the timetable for the evidentiary stage of the trial, including whether its start will be postponed until after the March 23 Knesset elections and whether and to what extent Netanyahu will have to attend the expected three long hearings per week, which would consume much of his time while he also manages the country.
The lawyers for all the defendants said the large scale of the arguments and allegations in the case require a delay in the start of the evidentiary stage, and Netanyahu’s lawyers asked for that phase to only begin in three or four months.
The judges said they would consider whether to accept the request for a delay of the evidentiary stage only after another hearing on Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit’s approval of the criminal probes.
Rivka Friedman-Feldman, the presiding judge, noted toward the end of the hearing that the trial was lagging far behind schedule. “This case should have started months ago. It didn’t start because of the coronavirus; we wanted to be responsible and not to gather too many people,” she told the defense lawyers. “In essence, you’re asking to defer the evidentiary stage by six months. We should have heard evidence long ago, Why are we seeking to press on, you ask? Because it’s been a year since the indictment was filed.”
The defense is also arguing that the lack of formal, written approval by Mandelblit for the opening of the probe discredits the cases against the premier.
Prosecutors said they were prepared to bring in the first of hundreds of witnesses within three weeks.
The court is set to announce a decision in the coming days.
Earlier, Netanyahu and the other defendants, Shaul and Iris Elovitch and Arnon Mozes, arrived at the court after security was stepped up, with snipers on nearby roofs in line with the premier’s normal security arrangements and with little fanfare, after the prime minister on Sunday asked his supporters not to come to the court due to surging coronavirus infections.
Netanyahu arrived early at the court and was seen sitting with his back to cameras next to an open window through which he could hear the protesters against him outside.
The demonstration grew during the hearing from dozens to hundreds of people who made noise that could be heard inside the courtroom, which had open windows in line with COVID-19 regulations.
It was the second time Netanyahu has attended a hearing of his trial in person.
He verbally confirmed the defense filed by his lawyers, who declined to add verbal arguments to their lengthy written response filed with the court last month.
Formally denying the charges against him, the premier stood up and told the court: “I confirm the response filed by my lawyers.”
The lawyers were focusing on procedural arguments such as the alleged lack of sufficient approval to launch the initial investigations and to issue search warrants for material — an argument that caused the judges to press the prosecution, which admitted that the approval process hadn’t been optimal.
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Two courtrooms have been combined to accommodate the trial, which is being adjudicated by judges Friedman-Feldman, Moshe Bar-Am and Oded Shaham.
The public was not able to watch the proceedings. Instead, CCTV footage was broadcast to journalists in an adjacent room.
The defense arguments focused on the lack of formal, written approval by Mandelblit for the opening of the probe into the specific cases, claiming that a blanket okay was illegally given to seek any evidence against Netanyahu.
Netanyahu’s lawyer Boaz Ben Tzur alleged that “an indictment was filed here on the basis of a partisan, independent, unauthorized investigation by an investigative body.”
Bar-Am repeatedly interrupted Ben Tzur, noting that Mandelblit has said several times that he did indeed approve the investigations as required.
The lawyers largely repeated parts of the written defense filed to the court. At one point, Friedman-Feldman told Ben Tzur to wrap it up: “Everything has been written. Please focus on things that weren’t written. You have been talking and talking and in the end there’s no connection.”
Pressed by the judges, prosecutor Liat Ben-Ari acknowledged during the hearing that “it may have been better for the approvals to have been given in a different form, but that’s how things happened.”
But, she added, “we said that from day one that things were written in an internal protocol documented in internal meetings. The attorney general confirms this.”
Friedman-Feldman subsequently said: “We don’t see express approvals in the protocols. The approval in Case 4000 was given after the investigation already began.”
Fellow prosecutor Yehudit Tirosh said the initial investigation regarded the Communications Ministry director-general Shlomo Filber, when Mandelblit didn’t believe the case would implicate Netanyahu: “Without the connection to the prime minister, there was no need to go to the attorney general, the state attorney would have been enough.”
Netanyahu faces charges of bribery, fraud, and breach of trust in Case 4000, which involves suspicions that he granted regulatory favors benefiting 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.
Ben Tzur argued that most of the specific coverage requests from Walla appearing in an addendum to the indictment should be removed, since Netanyahu hadn’t been questioned about them. Justice Bar-Am shut him down, saying the current stage was not the time to raise that argument.
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.
Ben-Ari said prosecutors may request surprise changes in the order of the testimonies, with many Case 1000 witnesses testifying first. She said she didn’t want to elaborate on the reasons.
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.
Members of Netanyahu’s Likud party geared up Sunday to accompany him to the court, but Netanyahu reportedly ordered Likud MKs not to come to the hearing, due to surging COVID-19 infections.
However, some Likud members sent their support online.
“We may not be with you physically, but we are with you from afar, offering our strength and support,” wrote Transportation Minister Miri Regev on Facebook. “Like many in the public, I believe in his innocence.”
MK Osnat Mark called the hearing “another stage in the attempted political assassination called the Netanyahu cases.”
In the first hearing of the trial last May — the previous time Netanyahu was required to attend — most of the party’s lawmakers showed up and the premier made a long, fiery speech lambasting the justice system and saying the charges were “fabricated.”
Netanyahu repeated that claim on Sunday.
“I know you want to give me strength in light of the fabricated and false cases against me,” said Netanyahu. “But we are at a time when a [mutated strain] is spreading around the world, and in Israel too, so for the sake of your own health I ask you: Don’t come tomorrow.”
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.
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.