The calling of witnesses in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s criminal trial for bribery, fraud and breach of public trust will begin in January 2021, Jerusalem District Court Judge Rivkah Friedman Feldman announced Sunday morning. Hearings will be held three times a week.
The schedule is a compromise between the positions of the prosecution, who wanted to start calling witnesses much sooner, and the defense, who hoped to push witnesses off until mid- or late 2021.
At the initial May 24 hearing, Netanyahu’s legal team obtained an initial victory by delaying a decision on when to call witnesses for two months to this July hearing.
In addition to looking at the issue of when calling witnesses will start, Sunday’s hearing also related to disputes over documents, planning pretrial motions and how many days per week the trial will run once it goes into full swing.
The trial schedule could have a huge impact on Netanyahu’s transfer of power to Blue and White’s Benny Gantz in November 2021, as well as what Netanyahu’s status will be after that transfer.
In contrast to the prosecution’s position of moving forward speedily, Netanyahu’s lawyers said they would need much more time to determine their basic trial strategy.
After that, they would file pretrial motions to seek acquittal without witnesses, as well as motions to attack prosecution requests to keep some documents confidential, they said.
Typically, the prosecution makes internal debate documents classified. But defense lawyers may argue that if their claims relate to improprieties in turning former top Netanyahu aide Nir Hefetz or others into state’s witnesses, they should get greater access.
Hefetz, the prime minister’s former media adviser, turned state’s witness against him in Case 4000 – the Bezeq-Walla Affair.
The prime minister’s new lawyer, Yossi Segev, told the Jerusalem District Court on Sunday that he has only been hired for one hearing. Responding impatiently, Friedman-Feldman said, “Then why am I here?”
She said it was impossible to hold a trial if Netanyahu’s lawyers continue to complain about whether they are being paid as opposed to committing to the full trial. Segev said he hopes to work out the issue of payment with the prime minister soon.
The issue of payment exploded two weeks ago when defense lawyer Micha Fettman quit after the State Comptroller Committee denied Netanyahu’s request to pay his lawyers with NIS 10 million in donations from tycoons.
Several lawyers have quit Netanyahu’s legal team over the past year due to unpaid fees. Segev only joined last week after Fettman quit after representing the prime minister in May.
“It will be very hard to cross-examine witnesses with a mask,” Segev also said Sunday. “How will you [the judge] know if they are telling the truth” when the judge cannot see the witnesses’ facial expressions? The court responded that this was just part of the coronavirus period, and they would all need to cope with the difficulties.
Regarding the issues in dispute, Friedman-Feldman ordered the prosecution to respond by next Sunday.
The defense lawyers can then file any motions to the court to compel the prosecution to disclose more evidence by September 13 and any other pretrial motions by October 18, with the prosecution responding by November 1.
ON SUNDAY, Michal Rozin, defense lawyer for defendant Iris Elovitch, attacked the prosecution and the police for withholding evidence showing that the police tampered with the Elovitch family’s rights, including trying to get her husband, defendant and Bezeq and Walla owner Shaul Elovitch, to abandon his lawyer’s strategy and turn state’s witness.
Rozin claimed that the police tried to coerce their son, Or, into convincing his father to turn state’s witness, adding that they illegally recorded the incident. She slammed Attorney-General Avichai Mandelblit for denying that the incident took place – or alternatively that it was not problematic – and refusing to give the defense lawyers all related recordings and documents to review the incident.
State prosecution team leader Liat Ben Ari was also head of the prosecution in the Holyland trial against former prime minister Ehud Olmert. She pointed out that most of the defense lawyers in the case have been working on it for years and that the two massive rounds of documents transferred to them were provided between February and summer 2019, prior to the October pre-indictment hearings.
Chen and Segev said they would need until the end of 2020 to obtain and review the rest of the documents they need from the prosecution. Defense lawyers will need a few months beyond that (presumably, April 2021) to prepare their cross-examination and strategies, Chen said.
Besides the Elovitches, another defendant is Yediot Aharonot owner Arnon “Noni” Mozes, represented by Navit Negev.
MANDELBLIT ANNOUNCED on November 21 that he would indict Netanyahu for bribery in Case 4000 and for breach of public trust in cases 1000 (the Illegal Gifts Affair) and 2000 (the Yediot Aharonot-Israel Hayom Affair). In Case 4000, Netanyahu is accused of involvement in a media bribery scheme in which Walla owner Elovitch allegedly gave him positive coverage in exchange for the prime minister making government policies favoring Elovitch’s Bezeq company to the tune of around NIS 1.8 billion.
Due to fights over potential immunity, the Netanyahu indictment was not filed until January 28. due to the election and the coronavirus crisis, the trial’s start date was delayed by another several months. This is the hardest case for Netanyahu because he faces accusations by two close former aides turned state’s witnesses, Hefetz and Shlomo Filber.
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 such a quid pro quo makes this case much weaker than Case 4000, but it is still viewed by most legal scholars as having at least a 50-50 chance.
Regarding Case 2000, Netanyahu was accused of working with Yediot Aharonot and Israel Hayom to reduce the latter’s competition with the former in exchange for positive coverage of the prime minister.
Although the deal was never consummated, the law has crimes of attempted bribery and breach of trust that can apply nevertheless. Mandelblit was never a fan of Case 2000, but he decided he needed to charge Netanyahu with something once they indicted Mozes with bribery.