Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was to ask Monday to be excused from attending the opening of his corruption trial next week, claiming his presence was unnecessary and would cost a “fortune.”
The premier’s lawyers were set to file the request with the Jerusalem District Court ahead of the May 24 hearing, where the number of participants will be limited due to coronavirus regulations, and proceedings will be filmed and broadcast to two adjacent rooms — though not to the public.
Defendants are generally required to attend the opening hearing of their trials, even though it is highly technical and consists mainly of the indictment being read out in full. His next hearing is only expected to be held in several months.
Netanyahu’s lawyers have explained their request by arguing that having the prime minister attend the hearing would be superfluous and would “cost the public a fortune” in security arrangements.
It is the first time in Israel’s history that a sitting prime minister faces criminal charges, meaning there is no precedent for such a request and it is unclear whether a leader may get such an exemption.
The prime minister faces charges in three criminal cases: fraud and breach of trust in Cases 1000 and 2000, and bribery, fraud and breach of trust in Case 4000.
He is accused of engaging in illegal activities to manipulate his media coverage to look better and of receiving illicit gifts from billionaire benefactors.
The other defendants in Case 4000 are Shaul Elovitch, the controlling shareholder in the Bezeq telecom giant, and his wife, Iris. In Case 2000, Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper publisher Arnon Mozes is also a defendant.
Netanyahu’s trial was pushed off by two months, two days before the scheduled March 17 opening hearing, after Justice Minister Amir Ohana declared a “state of emergency” in the court system in light of the coronavirus pandemic.
The Jerusalem District Court last week ruled that the opening hearing of Netanyahu’s trial would not be broadcast live to the public, rejecting a request by media outlets.
The court also noted that those present in the courtroom would be required to wear face masks and keep a distance of at least two meters from each other.
Only one attorney for the state will be permitted to attend, and one defense counsel for each of the defendants in the cases.
Netanyahu on Sunday swore in his new unity government, ending a 508-day political crisis during which Israel was ruled by a transitional government and held three consecutive elections.
Already in power for over a decade, Netanyahu will now likely be prime minister for at least another 18 months, as he fights the corruption charges.
He forged a power-sharing coalition with rival-turned-partner Blue and White party leader Benny Gantz and other allies who have agreed to join them. Gantz is set to become prime minister on November 17, 2021.
Earlier this month, the High Court of Justice shot down a petition to disqualify the Likud leader over his trial. It also declined to strike down legislative changes made as part of the Netanyahu-Gantz power-sharing agreement, while admitting that there were “significant difficulties” and hinting that future challenges may still be considered.
In Case 4000, the most serious case faced by Netanyahu, he is accused of pushing regulatory decisions as communications minister and prime minister from 2015 to 2017 that benefited Elovitch, in exchange for positive coverage by the Elovitch-owned Walla news site. That case includes a proposed bribery charge for both Netanyahu and Elovitch.
In Case 1000, Netanyahu is alleged to have received tens of thousands of dollars’ worth of gifts from wealth benefactors.
In Case 2000, Netanyahu is accused of agreeing with Mozes to weaken a rival daily in return for more favorable coverage from the Yedioth newspaper.
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 filed officially in January, when the prime minister dropped a bid for Knesset immunity.
Netanyahu denies the charges and claims, without providing evidence, that he is the victim of an attempted “political coup” involving the opposition, media, police and state prosecutors.