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On trial during elections? Timetable at stake as Netanyahu back in court

Judges will hear defendants’ response to indictment and requests for delay until after March vote; PM, making 2nd court appearance, tells supporters to stay home due to COVID risk

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, wearing a face mask in line with public health restrictions due to the coronavirus pandemic, stands inside the courtroom as his corruption trial opens at the Jerusalem District Court, May 24, 2020. (Ronen Zvulun/ Pool Photo via AP)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, wearing a face mask in line with public health restrictions due to the coronavirus pandemic, stands inside the courtroom as his corruption trial opens at the Jerusalem District Court, May 24, 2020. (Ronen Zvulun/ Pool Photo via AP)

After several delays due to the coronavirus lockdown, a much-anticipated court hearing in the corruption trial of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will take place at 9 a.m. Monday at the Jerusalem District Court, with the premier and the other defendants required to attend.

The hearing will focus on Netanyahu’s response to the criminal indictment against him and launch the evidentiary stage of the trial. It will be the second time Netanyahu attends a hearing of his trial in person.

He will likely be required to verbally confirm the defense filed by his lawyers, who will present a series of verbal arguments in addition to their lengthy written response filed to the court last month.

The lawyers are expected to focus on procedural arguments such as the alleged lack of sufficient approval to launch the initial investigations and to issue search warrants for material.

The court will also discuss the timetable for the evidentiary stage of the trial, including whether its start will be postponed until after the March 23 Knesset elections and whether Netanyahu will have to physically attend the expected three long hearings per week, which would consume much of his time, while he also manages the country.

Two courtrooms have been combined to accommodate the trial. Security will be stepped up and will be similar to other events attended by the prime minister.

The public will not be able to watch the proceedings. CCTV footage will be broadcast to journalists in an adjacent room, and they will report the hearing’s events in written form.

The start of the trial against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the Jerusalem District Court, May 24, 2020. (Amit Shabi/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. Elovitch and his wife, Iris, also face bribery charges in the case, and will also attend Monday’s hearing.

Netanyahu also faces charges of fraud and breach of trust in Case 1000, as well as 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 and is required to attend the hearing.

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.

Members of Netanyahu’s Likud party were gearing up Sunday to accompany him to the court. The Kan public broadcaster posted a screenshot of an internal Likud WhatsApp group, showing Boris Aplichuk — who on Thursday was reserved a spot on the party’s slate in the upcoming election — saying it is “our duty to support [Netanyahu] and show him love.”

“We will be there before he comes,” he wrote.

However, Netanyahu reportedly ordered Likud MKs not to come to Monday’s hearing, due to surging COVID-19 infections.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, surrounded by Likud lawmakers, gives a televised statement before the start of his corruption trial at the Jerusalem District Court on May 24, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

In the first hearing of the trial last May — the previous time Netanyahu was required to attend — most of the party’s lawmakers showed up and the premier made a long, fiery speech lambasting the justice system and saying the charges were “fabricated.”

Netanyahu repeated that claim Sunday, calling on his supporters not to come to the court to show solidarity with him, due to the high morbidity caused largely by the more infectious coronavirus variant originating in the UK.

“I know you want to give me strength in light of the fabricated and false cases against me,” said Netanyahu. “But we are at a time when a [mutated strain] is spreading around the world, and in Israel too, so for the sake of your own health I ask you: Don’t come tomorrow.”

Netanyahu’s trial opened in May. Though the prime minister attended the first hearing, he was granted an exemption from appearing at later, largely procedural stages of the 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.”

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