The Jerusalem District Court endorsed a compromise between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the prosecution on Thursday: he will attend the prosecution’s opening statement in his public corruption trial on Monday, but will not stay for the first witness.
“Since the prime minister had no connection with [first witness and former Walla CEO] Ilan Yeshua, and therefore his presence would not contribute anything in any way to the hearing, Netanyahu’s lawyers will request an exemption from the questioning of Yeshua,” a Netanyahu spokesman said on Wednesday. “This is an accepted request in cases similar to this one.”
However, the prosecution responded to Netanyahu’s lawyers saying, “the prosecution believes that there is a substantive need for the defendant [Netanyahu] to be present for the opening statement, which has the status of opening the entire prosecution case, both in terms of the defendant hearing the allegations directly and without intermediaries, and in terms of the perception of doing justice.”
Regarding Yeshua’s testimony, the prosecution said there were legal arguments to be made both for Netanyahu being present or having the right to absent himself, since much of the idea of being present is designed to protect the rights of defendants, not to impose on their time.
Netanyahu has sought to avoid attending hearings for his trial, with Monday being only the third time he will show up personally, while there have been around a dozen pretrial hearings since May 2020.
The trial is expected to run three times a week on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday from 9 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. until its conclusion, a potential major distraction for one to three years.
Some groups have argued that Netanyahu must legally resign as prime minister given the toll that the trial will take on his time.
He appears to want to avoid such allegations as well as to keep perceptions of him focused on positive matters, like his management of foreign affairs or the coronavirus vaccine rollout, and away from the corruption allegations.
The prosecution and the court have until now shown flexibility about his attendance.
But it is expected that Netanyahu will want to attend or will be compelled to attend when key state’s witnesses testify against him for illegal orders they say he gave them to carry out.
Netanyahu is accused of bribery for illegally influencing government communications policy in exchange for positive media coverage in Case 4000, the “Bezeq-Walla Affair.”
In Case 2000, the “Yediot Aharonot-Israel Hayom Affair,” he is accused of breach of trust for trying to reduce Israel Hayom’s competitiveness in exchange for more positive coverage from Yediot.
In Case 1000, the “Illegal Gifts Affair,” he is accused of breach of trust for receiving expensive cigars and champagne to a value of nearly NIS 700,000. The gifts were received from people with whom he may have had a conflict of interest for trying to help them in the business sector.
According to the amended indictment, from January 17-19, 2013 – days before the January 22, 2013, election – Netanyahu, through messengers, made no fewer than six demands for Walla owner Shaul Elovitch to influence media coverage positively for him and negatively for Naftali Bennett and the Bayit Yehudi Party.
All of the Netanyahu-Elovitch plans led to the coverage the prime minister wanted, including negative coverage of Bennett’s wife allegedly eating at a non-kosher restaurant, in exchange for the prime minister helping Elovitch’s Bezeq obtain NIS one billion ($300 million) in profits.
Yeshua, and later other editors and reporters from Walla, are expected to give a detailed description of exactly how they went about fulfilling Netanyahu’s demands, which included numerous articles being taken down that were good for his competitors.
They will say they knew that these changes went far beyond the typical access for coverage arrangements that other politicians regularly make with the media, which for one thing does not lead to reducing coverage for competitors.
Eventually, there were 315 alleged incidents of Netanyahu interference with Walla’s news coverage from 2013 until December 2016.
Yeshua was key to breaking open the all-important Case 4000, as the information he gave police led to multiple top Netanyahu aides turning state’s witness against the prime minister.