A judge ruled Sunday that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s corruption trial will begin to hear testimony from witnesses in January 2021, with hearings to be held three times a week.
Netanyahu’s trial on charges of accepting bribes, fraud and breach of trust opened in May in the Jerusalem District Court. Though the prime minister attended the first hearing, he did not make an appearance in the courtroom on Sunday.
The premier’s defense attorney had asked for a delay due to the coronavirus pandemic, citing the requirement to wear face masks as an obstacle to proceedings.
“I cannot interrogate witnesses when they are sitting with a mask on,” said attorney Yossi Segev. “How can a cross-examination be done when I am wearing a mask, the witness has a mask and so does the judge?”
Segev, who joined the prime minister’s legal team earlier this month, added: “I came here today unprepared. I suggest we reconvene here in another six months, after the coronavirus, and we will be smarter.”
Justice Minister Avi Nissenkorn vowed Friday that there would be no limits on court activity, even if a full lockdown is enacted down the road. The opening of Netanyahu’s trial was initially pushed off from March due to restrictions placed on the courts at the start of the pandemic.
Segev also told the court that he had received power of attorney only for Sunday’s hearing, “because the attorney general did not allow funding.”
The judge responded: “I do not understand. Today you are here and tomorrow you may not be? Where is [Amit] Hadad, who was here at the previous hearing? It can’t be that there is somebody different every time, there should be permanent representation. I hope that you won’t be replaced before next time.”
The Permits Committee at the State Comptroller’s Office has repeatedly rejected the prime minister’s requests — most recently earlier this month after seeking an opinion from Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit — for permission to accept donations from wealthy benefactors for his legal expenses, and instructing him to return funds he had already received.
The accusations against Netanyahu include accepting 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. Netanyahu is also accused of offering to push legislation benefiting powerful Israeli media moguls in exchange for more positive coverage in their publications. He denies any wrongdoing.
The prosecution requested that the hearings start with Case 4000, in which the premier is accused of approving regulatory moves benefiting the controlling shareholder of Bezeq telecom in exchange for positive news coverage from the company’s Walla news site.
In that case, which is considered the most serious of the three, the prime minister stands accused of taking bribes, as well as fraud and breach of trust.
On Sunday, the defense team for Shaul Elovitch, the controlling shareholder of Bezeq, who is also standing trial, pushed back against the prosecution’s bid to have the case heard first, claiming there was impropriety in the way the investigation had been conducted.
The attorneys for Elovitch, who, as opposed to Netanyahu, attended the hearing, said that investigative materials had been kept from them by the prosecution and questioned the way in which he was pressured to turn state’s witness.
“In this case there are super-dramatic events, hundreds of thousands of hours of recordings and dozens of pages of minutes — I have no choice but to go back to the recordings to check,” said attorney Michal Rosen-Ozer.
“Case 4000 is the largest in terms of the scope of the material, far larger than the other two cases and with the largest number of witnesses,” she added. “The prosecution tried to hide investigative materials from us. It is impossible to set a date for the beginning of the evidence.”
Prosecutor Liat Ben-Ari pushed back against the allegation: “No one hid investigative materials from the defense attorneys, the recordings are in front of them.”
Ben-Ari also responded to a similar claim from Netanyahu’s lawyers, saying: “Unfortunately, nobody contacted us on behalf of Netanyahu, and then they came with complaints.
In the bribery case, Netanyahu is accused of pushing regulatory favors for Elovitch’s benefit in exchange for positive media coverage. In another case he is accused of attempting to reach a quid pro quo with Yedioth Ahronoth publisher Arnon Mozes for positive media coverage.
Sunday’s hearing came on the heels of multiple protests against Netanyahu during which demonstrators demanded that he step down in light of the corruption charges against him.
Netanyahu has said he is the victim of a wide-ranging conspiracy seeking his ouster — involving the left-wing opposition, media, police and state prosecutors — and called the allegations baseless.