The first day of the pre-indictment hearing in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s criminal cases stretched into the late hours Wednesday night, with discussions ending around 9:30 p.m., over 11 hours after they began.
Spokesmen for the prime minister said Wednesday night the defense team presented state prosecution officials with new arguments and fresh evidence in the cases, which they asserted “completely contradict the claims in the charge sheet.”
Officials in the state prosecution told Channel 12, however, that they were not surprised by the evidence and arguments presented by the defense, and were familiar with most of the material.
The day’s session focused on Case 4000, also known as the Bezeq case, which involves suspicions that Netanyahu, while serving as communications minister, made regulatory decisions that benefited Shaul Elovitch, then controlling shareholder of the Bezeq telecommunications group, in return for ongoing positive coverage on Elovitch’s Walla news site. Netanyahu faces prosecution for fraud and trust, and bribery, in this case — the most serious of the three against him.
According to Channel 12 news, the defense had prepared a document hundreds of pages long, based on research conducted by a retired police official who now runs a telecommunications news site, Avi Weiss.
Netanyahu’s lawyers had only submitted a single page to Mandelblit ahead of the hearing instead of a comprehensive file laying out the Likud party leader’s defense, as was expected by prosecutors.
The lengthy document submitted on Wednesday was said to include various transcripts of statements made by multiple officials in the communications industry or who are otherwise tied to the case against the premier, and which Netanyahu’s defense team believes prove that Netanyahu acted only according to the professional opinions provided to him.
Channel 12 noted that Netanyahu’s legal team was seeking to show that Netanyahu and Elovitch acted independently of one another, and were not coordinated in any way in their actions.
Channel 13 news reported that the attorneys claimed Netanyahu neither sought positive coverage from Walla or was aware of any such coverage.
In a move that seemingly contradicted this claim, they also cited the testimony of an unnamed witness in the case, who said the prime minister had made coverage demands, but claimed that 90 percent of these were not implemented. This, the attorneys reportedly argued, proved there were no give-and-take relations between Netanyahu and Elovitch.
The network also reported that Netanyahu’s lawyers said he had not been aware of requests by his wife Sara and son Yair for positive coverage on Walla — as evidence held by the prosecution is reported to show.
One of the claims made against Netanyahu is that in 2015 he booted the director-general of the Communications Ministry, Avi Berger, in favor of his ally Shlomo Filber (now a state’s witness in the case) due to Berger’s opposition to the planned merger of Bezeq and telecommunications firm Yes, a move desired by Elovitch.
According to Channel 13, one piece of evidence presented by the defense was intended to show that Berger had not, in fact, been opposed to the merger at all.
The defense team also questioned the legitimacy of the justice system adjudicating the prime minister’s ties to the media, noting that he maintained communications with multiple publishers and claiming that accusing him of wrongdoing in the case would set an unfair precedent for politicians regarding their interactions with the media, and do so retroactively to a period five years back.
Channel 13 noted that the day’s proceedings were amicable and professional.
Notably, one of the lead attorneys on Netanyahu’s legal team, Ram Caspi, who joined the defense team only weeks ago, made a point during the proceedings to voice confidence in the justice system and its top officials.
Netanyahu has repeatedly claimed he is the subject of witch hunt, has questioned the legitimacy of the decision-making process in the justice system, and has singled out State Prosecutor Shai Nitzan and the lead prosecutor handling the case, Liat Ben-Ari, as pushing a hard line against him.
But Caspi on Wednesday morning told reporters: “I have complete, unreserved faith not only in Israel’s judicial system, but also in those at the head of law enforcement, and first and foremost Mr. Shai Nitzan, the state prosecutor, and Ms. Liat Ben-Ari, the deputy state prosecutor.”
According to a report by Channel 12, this statement was met with chagrin in the prime minister’s inner circles.
Channel 12 also reported that the defense was expected to ask to extend the deliberations on Case 4000 from two to three days — a further extension beyond the one already agreed to by the attorney general.
Earlier this week, Avichai Mandelblit agreed to give the defense team four days to present their arguments instead of the original two: with two days set out for Case 4000 this week and two more for Cases 1000 and 2000 next week. Any request to extend deliberations on Case 4000 beyond the allotted two days could cause the hearing to extend beyond Tuesday’s Yom Kippur holy day — the current deadline.
Netanyahu did not accompany his lawyers as they arrived for the hearing at Justice Ministry headquarters in Jerusalem, and has not said whether he will appear on any of the other days of deliberations.
Representing the prime minister at the hearings is a 10-strong defense team. They were squaring off with some 20 state prosecution officials, led by Mandelblit, Nitzan and Ben-Ari.
Prosecution officials told Channel 12 news on Tuesday they hoped to reach a final decision on whether to indict the premier by the end of the year.
In February, Mandelblit announced his intention to indict Netanyahu pending the hearing process. The prime minister faces charges of fraud and breach of trust in all three cases, and a bribery charge in Case 4000.
Netanyahu denies all the allegations against him and claims they constitute a witch hunt by his political opposition, media, police and state prosecutors to remove him from office.