Netanyahu trial judges defend assertion that bribery charge will be hard to prove

Judges also reject allegations made in a public complaints process that they are intimidated by the PM’s trial due to its political and social sensitivities

Jeremy Sharon is The Times of Israel’s legal affairs and settlements reporter

Left to right: Netanyahu trial Judges Moshe Bar-Am, Rebecca Friedman-Feldman and Oded Shaham. (Justice Ministry)
Left to right: Netanyahu trial Judges Moshe Bar-Am, Rebecca Friedman-Feldman and Oded Shaham. (Justice Ministry)

The judges in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s trial have rejected complaints that they acted improperly in suggesting that the state prosecution withdraw the bribery charge against the premier, and denied that they are in any way intimidated by the trial.

Responding to complaints filed to the Public Complaints Commission on Judges, Judges Rebecca Friedman-Feldman, Moshe Bar-Am and Oded Shaham insisted that they are running the trial in a fair, open and neutral manner, and that the proposal to withdraw the bribery charge was not based on a pre-judgement but after having heard numerous witnesses regarding the case.

In June, the judges met in their chambers with state prosecutors and Netanyahu’s defense team in order to discuss the complexities of the cases against the prime minister, and advised the prosecutors that the bribery charge against the premier would be difficult to prove.

It was also reported that they suggested the prosecution seek a plea bargain with the defense.

A week after leaked reports of the meeting, the judges issued a statement saying they had told the prosecution and defense that they believed there were difficulties establishing the bribery offense.

“Based on these difficulties, it was suggested that the state consider retracting the bribery charge,” the judges said at the time, while noting “that these comments were being made with the necessary caution.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu seen at the Jerusalem District Court during the testimony of businessman Arnon Milchan in Netanyahu’s corruption trial, July 2, 2023. (Oren Ben Hakoon/Pool)

Netanyahu has been charged with bribery, fraud and breach of trust in so-called Case 4000, which alleges that he provided regulatory benefits to Bezeq telecommunications giant shareholder Shaul Elovitch worth hundreds of millions of shekels, and in return received favorable media coverage from the Walla news site, also owned by Elovitch.

Besides Case 4000, Netanyahu is also on trial for two additional counts of fraud and breach of trust — in Case 1000, which concerns gifts he allegedly inappropriately received from billionaire benefactors, and in Case 2000, in which he allegedly negotiated to obtain positive media coverage in a newspaper in exchange for curtailing its competitors.

In a complaint filed to the Public Complaints Commission on Judges, Attorney Amiram Gil argued that the judges’ suggestions to the prosecution were incommensurate with the court’s task of uncovering the truth, and their comments that bribery would be hard to prove represented “the formation of a preconceived opinion in favor of the defense… before the prosecution has finished.”

Gil added that suggesting a plea bargain would weaken public faith in the other cases against Netanyahu and in the law enforcement system more generally.

“These comments were not born in a vacuum but add to the impression that has been created that the court is intimidated by the trial, apparently because of its high social and political sensitivity,” concluded Gil, adding that such an approach violated the ethics code for judges, who are instructed “not to be afraid of anyone and not to be influenced by public opinion, a fear of criticism, or a desire for approval.”

The judges strongly rejected the criticism in a document published last week by the Public Complaints Commission on Judges.

“The judges completely rejected the claim of forming a preconceived opinion in favor of the defense in the main issue… because most of the key witnesses on the relevant charge have been heard and questioned, including the state’s witnesses,” the document stated.

“This is therefore not a preconceived opinion, but rather a position based on testimonies that have been heard, evidence that has been presented, and a preliminary assessment of the picture that emerges at this stage, from all of this,” the judges were quoted as saying.

Prosecutor Judith Tirosh at a court hearing in the trial of Benjamin Netanyahu, at the District Court in Jerusalem on December 20, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

“It goes without saying that they hear the case with an open and willing heart,” the judges continued, and denied they proposed the prosecution arrange a plea bargain.

The judges also insisted that they had remained neutral throughout the whole trial and did make public comments about testimony or evidence presented to them.

“The judges described as ‘baseless’ the claim that the court is intimidated by the trial away from conducting the trial. According to them, it is a complex process based on an indictment with many allegations, as well as many witnesses. The evidentiary infrastructure presented to them is extensive, and reflects an extensive and lengthy investigation that took place in the matter. Key witnesses were questioned by the police for many days… Against this backdrop, one must understand the length of time the trial takes,” the document insisted.

The trial began in May 2020, and is predicted to stretch on for several more years unless a plea bargain can be reached.

Netanyahu denies any wrongdoing in the cases against him and claims that the charges were fabricated in a witch hunt led by the police and state prosecution.

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