In a first for Israel, a sitting prime minister goes on trial

Legal Affairs: With witnesses ranging from an ex-Mossad chief to Lapid and Dermer, get ready for a court case to remember

PROTESTERS AT HABIMA Square in Tel Aviv last November call on Netanyahu to quit, following the announcement by Attorney-General Avichai Mandelblit that the prime minister would stand trial. (photo credit: MIRIAM ALSTER/FLASH90)
PROTESTERS AT HABIMA Square in Tel Aviv last November call on Netanyahu to quit, following the announcement by Attorney-General Avichai Mandelblit that the prime minister would stand trial.
(photo credit: MIRIAM ALSTER/FLASH90)
Many probably thought when former prime minister Ehud Olmert entered prison in 2016 that there would never be another legal saga to top it.
They were wrong.
On Tuesday, the public corruption trial of “Defendant No. 1,” aka Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, will open before the three-judge Jerusalem District Court panel of Rivka Friedman-Feldman, Moshe Bar-Am and Oded Shaham.
The indictment of Netanyahu for bribery, fraud and breach of public trust in three different affairs has already hindered him from forming a government for over a year, may soon indirectly lead to his ousting and could very well send him (in a few years) to the same Ramle prison cell that Olmert entered.
After years of soul-searching, Attorney-General Avichai Mandelblit ultimately indicted Netanyahu for bribery in Case 4000, the Bezeq-Walla Affair, for breach of public trust in Case 1000, the Illegal Gifts Affair, and for breach of public trust in Case 2000, the Yediot Aharonot-Israel Hayom Affair.
In Case 4000, Netanyahu is accused of involvement in a media bribery scheme in which Walla owner Shaul Elovitch allegedly gave him positive coverage in exchange for Netanyahu making government policies favoring Elovitch’s Bezeq company to the tune of around NIS 1.8 billion.
This is the hardest case for Netanyahu, since he faces accusations by two close former aides turned state witnesses, Shlomo Filber and Nir Hefetz.
Elovitch and his wife are also defendants in this case. That is an important fact because if the court believes they were involved in bribery – and Elovitch did not help himself with his testimony to police – it gets harder to say that Netanyahu was not involved.
Hefetz is mentioned around 80 times in the indictment, accusing Netanyahu of micromanaging Walla news coverage, but he is the less stable and weaker witness of the two.
In a recent interview with The Jerusalem Post, former state attorney Shai Nitzan, who led the move to indict Netanyahu along with Mandelblit, said that regardless of Hefetz’s performance, the prosecution has vast external documentary evidence, including text messages, and overlapping witnesses to confirm the allegations.
Filber is mentioned around 90 times in the indictment, describing the beginning of Netanyahu allegedly hatching the scheme to favor Elovitch on government communications policy, and is far more formidable than Hefetz under pressure.
Ironically, though state’s witness and former top Netanyahu aide Ari Harow was once considered important to the cases against the prime minister and is still mentioned in the indictment, he is mentioned only about 10 times and often in a passive context.
Netanyahu’s defense will focus on arguing that Walla did many negative stories about him, which shows he did not control it, and that any communications policies that favored Elovitch were approved by apolitical bureaucrats.
At least parts of both arguments are true and solid defenses. But Filber will testify that, on Netanyahu’s behalf, he twisted the arms of the apolitical bureaucrats behind the scenes.
In Case 1000, Netanyahu is accused of receiving hundreds of thousands of shekels in gifts from rich tycoons, mostly from Arnon Milchan, in exchange for help with business and personal-legal initiatives.
The charge itself is for acting in situations in which the prime minister had a conflict of interest, since no actual quid pro quo can be proven.
The absence of a quid pro quo makes this case much weaker than Case 4000. But the sheer amount of witnesses and instances of questionable actions by Netanyahu mean chances of a conviction are around 50/50.
Reportedly, former Mossad chief Tamir Pardo will testify that as part of Case 1000, Milchan asked Pardo if he would allow Yossi Cohen, then a senior official in the Mossad working under Pardo, to be present for a key business meeting.
Pardo allegedly refused, saying that the Mossad could not be drawn into personal endeavors.
Netanyahu ultimately ordered the IDF to grant usage of a helicopter to Milchan for holding the meeting.
This is one of multiple incidents where Netanyahu allegedly threw the weight of his office behind Milchan in a situation where he had a conflict of interest.
Former Shin Bet director Yuval Diskin and former national security adviser Uzi Arad are also listed as witnesses.
Ambassador to the US Ron Dermer is listed as a witness because he was allegedly involved in Netanyahu’s efforts to pressure the US State Department to issue Milchan a US visa.
Besides the full telling of how the halls of power, reaching all the way to then-US secretary of state John Kerry, were allegedly used by Netanyahu for non-state purposes, Dermer is also a long-standing confidant of the prime minister.
This will put Dermer in an extremely awkward position of trying to maintain loyalty to Netanyahu while avoiding perjuring himself.
World Jewish Congress president and onetime close Netanyahu supporter Ron Lauder is also on the witness list, along with tycoons James Packer (whom Milchan allegedly asked to help pay for Netanyahu’s gifts) and Spencer Partridge (who has offered to pay Netanyahu’s legal defense fees if approved by a state comptroller oversight committee) and Netanyahu cousin and financial backer Natan Milikowsky.
Milikowsky may also be connected to a preliminary probe into Netanyahu’s investments and his disclosures of those investments to the State Comptroller’s Office.
The state prosecution has refused to indicate to the Post when a decision might come about whether to criminally investigate the now 12-month-old probe’s allegations. But the implication has been implied that Mandelblit does not want to draw attention to what is seen as a more minor issue and which could distract from the trial.
And yet, after all of those witnesses, some of the biggest fireworks may come from one of Netanyahu’s greatest enemies, Blue and White’s No. 2, Yair Lapid.
Lapid is expected to testify that Netanyahu tried to get him, when he was finance minister, to help pass a law that would give massive tax exemptions to Milchan, as part of Case 1000.
He refused, and the tax exemption never went forward.
But there is far more drama to Lapid testifying against Netanyahu in court now that Lapid has been a key force keeping Blue and White from joining forces with the Likud in a national-unity government.
Lapid and others who dislike Netanyahu, such as former foreign minister Tzipi Livni and former Labor MK Eitan Cabel, may relish the opportunity to rake Netanyahu over the coals in court.
However, others, such as Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan, Tourism Minister Yariv Levin, Jerusalem Affairs Minister Ze’ev Elkin and Regional Cooperation Minister Tzachi Hanegbi, who are all part of Netanyahu’s party, may have a harder time on the stand balancing their loyalty to him with answering questions truthfully.
In particular, when Erdan left the Communications Ministry, he had a range of anti-Bezeq reforms ready to move forward. He then had to watch Filber, allegedly under Netanyahu’s orders, slow or quash some of the reforms.
These allegations are at the center of Case 4000, but Erdan reportedly did not hold back from talking about why the reforms he pushed (and which Netanyahu tried to stop or slow) were necessary.
This could put him in an awkward spot with Netanyahu during an era when the Likud itself has been experiencing internal tension about whether to stick with Netanyahu or anoint a successor. Netanyahu fended off Likud MK Gideon Sa’ar, but new moves by Blue and White may raise the issue again.
Former Bayit Yehudi MK Yinon Magal’s testimony could also be highly unpredictable and explosive.
It is unknown whether Magal will seek to help Netanyahu as an ideological supporter, or whether his role in opening up the allegations of Netanyahu trying to bribe his way into positive media coverage at Walla (where Magal worked) will make him a damaging witness.
Regarding Case 2000, Netanyahu was accused of working with Yediot and Israel Hayom to reduce the latter’s competition with Yediot in exchange for positive coverage for Netanyahu.
The deal never went through, but the law has crimes of attempted bribery and breach of trust which can apply even if a deal does not go through.
Mandelblit was never a fan of Case 2000, but decided he needed to charge Netanyahu with something once they indicted Yediot owner Arnon “Noni” Mozes with bribery.
On one hand, Mandelblit may have mortally wounded Case 2000 by reducing the bribery charge against Netanyahu to breach of trust. Also, Mandelblit accepted much of Netanyahu’s narrative that he never intended to go through with the bribery scheme with Mozes, and that all their meetings were a complex chess game.
But some of the above witnesses will testify against Netanyahu in Case 2000, and he will also need to defend against Sheldon and Miriam Adelson, the owners of the pro-Netanyahu Israel Hayom newspaper.
Though a longtime Netanyahu supporter, Sheldon Adelson has testified that he was unhappy with the prime minister’s efforts to reduce Israel Hayom’s competitiveness in order to gain favor with Mozes.
His testimony was a key piece in convincing Mandelblit to indict Netanyahu in Case 2000.
Other close Netanyahu advisers listed as witnesses include: cousin and lawyer David Shimron, Perach Lerner, David Sharan, and Ran Baratz.
WHAT IS the outlook regarding the three judges?
Netanyahu would have been in an even worse situation if his trial had been set for Tel Aviv, which is one reason his advisers suggested he get indicted as a sitting prime minister (the law requires such a trial be before the Jerusalem District Court).
But among the Jerusalem judges he could have drawn, Friedman-Feldman and Shaham are both considered on the tougher end of judges in terms of convictions and sentencing.
Bar-Am does not have much of a record to draw from on white-collar crime, such that he is viewed neutrally. But he may also be more likely to defer to the other two judges, who are more experienced in this area.
Friedman-Feldman is by far the most well-known, having served on the panel that convicted Olmert in the Talansky Affair retrial.
Significantly, though she wrote that she agreed with convicting Olmert in the retrial, she went a step further, saying that she would have convicted Olmert even in the first trial, had she been on the original panel that acquitted him.
Next, when sentencing Olmert to jail time, even as she and the panel expressed appreciation for Olmert’s contributions to the country, she and the panel also echoed the prosecution’s points that Olmert must go to jail to restore public faith in the system.
Friedman-Feldman has already issued a first ruling against Netanyahu, denying his request for a 45-day postponement of next week’s trial.
Shaham’s most noted ruling on public corruption was when he voted in the minority to convict Likud minister Tzachi Hanegbi of corruption charges, while the majority of the panel of judges convicted him of only perjury.
So Shaham was the strictest of the judges.
Shaham was in the majority in framing Hanegbi’s perjury conviction as carrying a finding of moral turpitude, which impacted his political career years into the future.
The prosecution told the Post that it has not yet decided which prosecutors will fulfil which roles, but one of the lead lawyers on the team, Yonatan Tadmor, was a lead lawyer in the Holyland trial against Olmert.
Even eight years ago, when he was far junior to top defense lawyers such as Eli Zohar, Tadmor thundered away at Olmert and others on the defense side fearlessly.
Some of this is jumping the gun. Tuesday’s hearing will mostly be a technical hearing to fight about how much additional evidence the prosecution must give the defense and to set a trial schedule.
The first witness will likely not be called for around three to six months minimum.
But for those anticipating an encore that could surpass the Olmert saga, the waiting is over.