Court rejects Netanyahu request to skip first hearing of trial

Netanyahu has filed a motion with the court.

Benjamin Netanyahu (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
Benjamin Netanyahu
A Jerusalem District Court three-judge panel on Wednesday unanimously rejected Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s request for an exemption from attending the opening of his public corruption trial that will take place on Sunday.
The decision appeared to be a move by the court to indicate it is in control now that the trial is actually starting, even though “Defendant No. 1” is the country’s prime minister who victoriously just started his fifth term.
Judges Rivka Friedman-Feldman, Moses Bar-Am and Oded Shaham said none of the reasons Netanyahu presented could justify his absence.
In addition, defendants Shaul and Iris Elovitch, Arnon “Noni” Mozes and Netanyahu had requested that they be allowed additional defense lawyers in the main courtroom. The court had previously said each defendant could have one lawyer in the main room and additional lawyers in an adjacent room due to coronavirus social-distancing regulations.
The court rejected this request as well.
On Tuesday, the state prosecution and Netanyahu took shots at each other over the issue of whether he would need to attend, leading Netanyahu to ask the court to decide the dispute.
At the first stage, Netanyahu sought to sound out the prosecution regarding the issue.
Formally, the reply came from Tel Aviv Economic Crimes Division director Yehudit Tirosh. But important issues related to the trial likely are being cleared with Attorney-General Avichai Mandelblit.
The prosecution said the law requires a defendant to be present for his arraignment hearing, where he must personally plead innocent or guilty.
The court had ordered Netanyahu to appear in its prior February and early May scheduling orders related to the trial, Tirosh said.
A spokesman for Netanyahu on Monday night said the prime minister did not need to be present for the first hearing because it will just be a technical discussion to review discovery issues and set a schedule for witnesses.
Furthermore, the spokesman said Netanyahu travels with a large security contingent that would negatively impact how many lawyers and media representatives could be present in the main courtroom, and bringing it was a waste of resources. This was especially true in light of the special, current coronavirus concerns, he said. In a motion to the court, Netanyahu said he would need five security guards in the courtroom.
The Jerusalem Post requested clarification about these numbers from the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) based on past experience where the number of security guards appeared to be smaller. The agency declined to comment.
The spokesman confirmed that Netanyahu would be present at more-substantive hearings, such as the opening statements and the testimony of key witnesses.
Various noteworthy defendants have skipped the first technical hearing of their trials in the past. The “real” trial with witnesses will begin in three months to a year later.
It was always clear that Netanyahu would have to attend whenever he is called as a witness or to be cross-examined.
Cynics were inclined to say Netanyahu was seeking to avoid any pictures of himself in court this early in his new term.
Tirosh rejected Netanyahu’s characterization of Sunday’s hearing as a mere technical one. It was important for the public’s faith and respect for the legal process that he attends in person, she said.
Netanyahu’s lawyer Amit Hadad slammed the prosecution’s response.
Even though the hearing was labeled as “an arraignment hearing,” he said, everyone knew that most of it would really be devoted to the lawyers wrestling over technical documentation and witness-related details, which sometimes leads to the actual plea of guilty or innocent even being postponed.
Hadad said the prosecution’s response “did not come from proper professional motives, but rather to serve the campaign of presenting a picture of Prime Minister Netanyahu on the bench of the defendants as a continuation of the ‘anyone-but-Bibi’ campaign.”
The elections are over, and Netanyahu has established a national-unity government to address serious problems like the coronavirus crisis, he said.
The prosecution responded that there was no basis to attack their professionalism, and it still was unclear what legal reasons Netanyahu really thought he had to have an exemption when three other prominent defendants would need to show up in court on Sunday.
Ultimately, the court sided with the prosecution without really addressing some of the cases cited by Netanyahu to support the idea that it had discretion to exempt him from attendance.
As things stand, despite several media outlets requesting a live broadcast for the public, the discussion will only be broadcast on two other courtrooms via CCTV.
The public corruption trial will cover cases 1000, 2000 and 4000, regarding bribery, fraud and breach of trust.