The Jerusalem District Court ruled Thursday that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu must attend the prosecution’s opening arguments next week, when the evidence stage of his corruption trial begins.
However, the judges exempted the premier from remaining in the courtroom on Monday during the testimony of the former editor of the Walla news site, Ilan Yeshua, a witness in the bribery case known as Case 4000.
The judges warned that Netanyahu’s absence cannot later be used as the basis for any future objections in the trial. The permission was given “assuming that the applicant understands the significance of his non-appearance, including the failure to raise further allegations arising from his absence,” the judges wrote.
Netanyahu has been charged with bribery, fraud and breach of trust in the case, 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.
Yeshua was CEO of Walla at the time of the alleged crimes in Case 4000, but Netanyahu’s attorneys argued that since the two had no direct contact, the premier’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 legal team had initially asked the court Wednesday to waive the requirement that he be present in the courtroom for the proceedings altogether, but that was opposed by state prosecutors.
“The prosecution believes that there is a real reason for the defendant’s presence in the opening speech, which is the opening status of the entire prosecution case, both in terms of the defendant hearing the proceedings directly, and in terms of the perception of justice,” state prosecutors said in a statement, noting that the decision was at the discretion of the court.
Starting next week, hearings in the evidentiary phase of Netanyahu’s trial are scheduled to be held three times a week, 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 hear their recommendations for 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.
Netanyahu’s trial involves three separate cases: Case 1000, Case 2000, and Case 4000.
Netanyahu 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 the opposition are framing him in an attempted political coup.
He has appeared in court twice so far.
In February, 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. The court has rejected the call to cancel the indictments.
Meanwhile, the Justice Ministry is set to be left without a justice minister as of midnight Thursday, with Netanyahu preventing a permanent appointment to the post.