Political fate in balance, Netanyahu in court at start of trial’s evidence stage

As president meets party representatives over whom to task with forming coalition, Netanyahu’s trial gathers pace, with state prosecutor setting out case and key witness testifying

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's military correspondent.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu arrives for a court hearing at the District Court in Jerusalem on February 8, 2021. Netanyahu is charged with fraud and breach of trust in three cases and bribery in one of them. (Reuven Kastro/POOL)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu arrives for a court hearing at the District Court in Jerusalem on February 8, 2021. Netanyahu is charged with fraud and breach of trust in three cases and bribery in one of them. (Reuven Kastro/POOL)

On a day of extraordinary political drama Monday, Benjamin Netanyahu’s corruption trial entered the evidentiary stage at the Jerusalem District Court even as across town representatives of Israel’s political parties were meeting with President Reuven Rivlin to tell him whether they recommend Netanyahu remain prime minister after last month’s deadlocked election.

The state’s lead prosecutor, Liat Ben-Ari, was set to open Monday’s court proceedings with a 20-minute speech laying out the criminal charges against Netanyahu. The judges were later scheduled to hear from the former editor of the Walla news site, Ilan Yeshua, a key witness in Case 4000, the most serious of the three cases against Netanyahu.

The prime minister faces charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust in Case 4000, and fraud and breach of trust charges in Case 1000 and Case 2000. He denies any wrongdoing, claims the charges are fabricated, and says he is the victim of an attempted political coup.

Monday marked the prime minister’s third appearance in court since the indictments were filed against him in January 2020. The premier most recently appeared before the judges in February 2021, formally pleading not guilty to the charges.

Liat Ben Ari arrives at the District Court in Jerusalem, February 8, 2021 (Reuven Castro/Pool)

Netanyahu’s legal troubles have been inextricably linked to his premiership and to the country’s current political impasse, which has resulted in four elections in the past two years. Opponents have used the indictments against him as fodder for their campaigns and as a reason to not join a coalition with him, preventing Netanyahu from acquiring the 61 seats necessary to form a government as of Monday.

Netanyahu has also been accused by his rivals of making support for legislation granting him immunity a requirement for entering his coalition.

Accentuating the connection between the trial and the country’s political situation, half an hour after Netanyahu was due to appear in court, Rivlin was coincidentally scheduled to meet with representatives of Netanyahu’s own Likud party to hear its recommendation for who should be tasked with forming a government coalition, following March 23’s inconclusive election.

Rivlin was meeting with representatives from all 13 parties that won Knesset seats in the course of the day, and is set later this week — and possibly as soon as Monday night or Tuesday — to give the lawmaker he deems most likely to succeed the task of mustering a majority coalition. Neither Netanyahu nor his rivals have a clear path to such a majority.

Walla CEO Ilan Yeshua. (YouTube screenshot)

Following an unusual request by his attorneys, Netanyahu has been permitted by the judges to leave the courthouse following Ben-Ari’s opening statement, meaning he will not be in the room for Yeshua’s testimony.

This is considered by legal experts a curious move, as a defendant’s presence in court to hear the accusations against them is generally considered a privilege or right, rather than an onerous demand by the court. A violation of that right could potentially be grounds for a mistrial. Therefore, in their ruling on the matter, the judges noted that this decision came only as a result of Netanyahu’s own direct request, so his absence could not be used as the basis for an objection in the future.

Netanyahu’s legal team initially asked the court last Wednesday to waive the requirement that he be present in the courtroom for the proceedings altogether, but this 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 wrote in a statement.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu arrives at a hearing in his corruption case at the Jerusalem District Court, February 8, 2021. (Reuven Kastro/Pool)

The trial has so far been plagued by delays — to the consternation of the presiding judges — in light of both the pandemic, which broke out shortly after the indictments were filed, and the numerous legal objections and requests for postponements by the premier’s legal team.

Netanyahu’s lawyers have repeatedly moved to slow and discredit the proceedings, filing complaints against the prosecution, alleging “criminal tactics” have been used against them, calling for changing the indictment against the prime minister, asserting that the investigation process was not properly approved by the attorney general, and claiming that police investigators used illegitimate means to secure evidence, thus rendering the charges moot. The court has rejected the calls to cancel the indictments.

Judges Moshe Bar-Am, Rebecca Friedman-Feldman and Oded Shaham, L-R. (Justice Ministry)

The evidentiary stage of the trial, set to include over 300 witness testimonies and cross-examinations, is expected to last several years, before the judges — Rebecca Friedman-Feldman, Moshe Bar-Am and Oded Shaham — deliberate on their findings and reach a verdict.

The former head of the Jerusalem District Court, Carmi Mosek, offered a conservative estimate of three years for the length of the trial.

“It will be a minimum of three years. I simply did the arithmetic. There are 300 witnesses. From my experience, even if only 50 of the witnesses were important” it would take that long, Mosek told Israeli television on Saturday night.

Whatever the outcome, any court ruling will likely be appealed by one side or the other, bringing the matter to the High Court of Justice, a process that could also take years, particularly given that the defendant is the prime minister.

A plea bargain, of course, would expedite the process considerably — under Israeli law, such agreements can be brokered essentially at any time before the verdict is rendered — but no such move appears to be in the offing at this time, and Netanyahu has insisted he will not seek one since, he has said, the cases against him “will collapse” in court.

Former prime minister Ehud Olmert seen at the Jerusalem Supreme Court on December 29, 2015. (Photo by Emil Salman/POOL)

Netanyahu, Israel’s longest-serving prime minister, is the first to stand trial while in office. His predecessor, Ehud Olmert, was convicted and jailed for corruption, but for crimes committed before his premiership, and Olmert stepped down as prime minister before indictments were filed.

In Case 1000 and Case 2000, Netanyahu faces charges of fraud and breach of trust.

Case 1000 involves allegations that Netanyahu, while in office, 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 the publisher of the popular Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper, Arnon Mozes, in which the outlet would provide the premier with positive media coverage and in exchange, Netanyahu would advance legislation that would weaken rival newspaper Israel Hayom, a tabloid funded by Netanyahu’s now-deceased close ally Sheldon Adelson that is widely seen as being overwhelmingly supportive of the prime minister.

Publisher and owner of Yedioth Aharonoth newspaper Arnon ‘Noni’ Mozes arrives for questioning in the so-called ‘Case 2000’ police investigation at the Lahav 433 investigation unit, in Lod, January 17, 2017. (Roy Alima/Flash90)

Mozes was indicted for bribery in that case.

Netanyahu faces bribery, fraud and breach of trust charges over Case 4000, in which he allegedly used his powers when he served as both premier and communications minister from 2014 to 2017 to illicitly benefit telecommunications magnate Shaul Elovitch, the controlling shareholder of Bezeq telecoms, in exchange for positive coverage of the prime minister and his family by the Bezeq-owned Walla news site, one of the most popular outlets in Israel. Elovitch and his wife Iris also face bribery charges in Case 4000. Other Bezeq officials were indicted in related, but separate cases last year.

Throughout the corruption probes and trial, Netanyahu has railed against his investigators, the police, the state prosecutors, the state attorney, the courts and the Justice Ministry — including officials he appointed himself — for allegedly pursuing a witch hunt against him. He has also repeatedly called for legislation to rein in law enforcement and the courts, in what his opponents deem an assault on an independent judiciary, but supporters say are necessary reforms for a legal system run amok.

Israeli businessman Shaul Elovitch and his wife Iris arrive at the District Court in Jerusalem for a court hearing on February 8, 2021. (Reuven Kastro/POOL)

Israel has had no justice minister as of Friday, as a consequence of the country’s ongoing political deadlock, with Netanyahu preventing a permanent appointment to the post.

Alleging that the state prosecution, police, media and the opposition are trying to frame him in an attempt to “bring down a right-wing government,” Netanyahu has nonetheless repeatedly stated that he will not try to evade his trial, even as several loyalist MKs have offered to initiate legislation that would retroactively prevent a prime minister being prosecuted while in office.

The prime minister has rejected the charges against him as ridiculous, downplaying the over $200,000 in champagne and cigars from Milchan and Packer as gifts from friends and maintaining that it is common practice for political figures to seek positive media coverage, not a criminal act.

The 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., for at least the next several months, according to a spokesperson for the courts.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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