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Netanyahu lawyers ask court to excuse PM from attending trial hearings next week

Legal team claims premier had no contact with first witness to be called, rendering his presence unnecessary; hearing to coincide with coalition-building efforts

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a court hearing at the District Court in Jerusalem on February 8, 2021. (Reuven Kastro/POOL)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a court hearing at the District Court in Jerusalem on February 8, 2021. (Reuven Kastro/POOL)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s lawyers on Wednesday asked the Jerusalem District Court to excuse the premier from attending court hearings beginning next week in his corruption trial.

The evidentiary phase of Netanyahu’s trial for alleged bribery, fraud and breach of trust begins on Monday, with hearings scheduled to be held three times a week, from Monday through Wednesday, from 9 a.m. until 3:30 p.m.

The intensive legal proceedings coincide with President Reuven Rivlin’s meetings Monday with representatives of all political parties to gather their nominations of the next prime minister, following last week’s inconclusive election.

Netanyahu, who seeks to establish the next government and continue serving as prime minister after four rounds of voting in two years, was reportedly seeking to avoid fresh photos from the defendant’s bench as he tries to muster political support to head a coalition.

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

Netanyahu’s legal team asked the court Wednesday to waive the requirement that he be present in the courtroom for the proceedings, according to Hebrew media reports.

The first witness to be called is Ilan Yeshua, CEO of Walla at the time of the alleged crimes in Case 4000. His attorneys argued that since the two had no direct contact, Netanyahu’s presence in the courtroom is unnecessary. Yeshua’s testimony, Netanyahu’s lawyers claim, is relevant only to the other defendants in the trial.

Netanyahu’s trial involves three separate cases: Case 1000, Case 2000 and Case 4000.

Israeli businessman Shaul Elovitch and his wife Iris arrive at the District Court in Jerusalem for a court hearing on February 8, 2021. (Reuven Kastro/POOL)

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.

The Kan public broadcaster noted that Netanyahu’s lawyers have ruled out arguing that a prime minister’s time is precious and that spending a significant number of hours in court every week would damage his ability to perform his duties. This is to avoid emboldening the claims of Netanyahu’s political rivals, who argue that he cannot run the country properly while he is on 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.

He has appeared in court twice so far.

Last 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.

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.

But 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.

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