Final Netanyahu pretrial hearing kicks off today

Court expected to set witness schedule.

PRIME MINISTER Benjamin Netanyahu attends a weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem in May. (photo credit: RONEN ZVULUN/REUTERS)
PRIME MINISTER Benjamin Netanyahu attends a weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem in May.
(photo credit: RONEN ZVULUN/REUTERS)
The final pretrial hearing for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu opens today. He will be in attendance for only the second time since the court process began and will formally deny the indictment against him.
The Jerusalem District Court is expected to set a schedule for calling witnesses.
Typically, the court could start calling witnesses as early as late February. But it is unknown if the judges might postpone the first witness until after Election Day on March 23.
Throughout the pretrial process, which started in January 2020 and with a first hearing in May, the court said it would move forward blind to politics.
However, the court delayed the first 2020 pretrial hearing for months, seemingly to avoid starting in the middle of the March 2020 election season.
The three judges are Rivkah Friedman-Feldman, Moshe Bar-Am and Oded Shoham.
Netanyahu on Sunday asked supporters not to come to the courthouse on Monday because of COVID-19 concerns.
“Anyway, everyone sees that the witch hunt against me is crumbling,” he said. “Everybody understands it is another transparent attempt to topple a strong prime minister from the Right and bring in a left-wing government led by [Yesh Atid leader Yair] Lapid.”
At the first hearing where the prime minister personally appeared last May, the entire street and neighborhood around the courthouse was mobbed with pro-Netanyahu demonstrators.
Both sides have won some victories over the last year as the witness stage of the trial approaches.
The prosecution, led by Liat Ben-Ari, has succeeded at fending off round after round of motions by the defense to dismiss the case without calling witnesses, such as attempts to argue that Netanyahu still has immunity from being charged.
In addition, the prosecution has succeeded at defeating the vast majority of the defense’s motions to receive additional evidentiary material where there were disputes about whether the evidence was relevant or whether it should be withheld as internal prosecution memoranda.
The defense, led by Boaz Ben Tzur and Amit Hadad, has also had its moments. It succeeded in compelling the prosecution to file an amended indictment that forced the state both to break down exactly which charges are against the prime minister himself and where certain actions were undertaken by his wife, Sarah, or son Yair.
This amended indictment also unveiled more of the prosecution’s strategy as to how it will try to use individual actions by Netanyahu and his aides, which meant the defense could better prepare in advance to pick apart each individual item.
Moreover, the defense convinced either the district court or the Supreme Court to order the prosecution to submit several items of evidence that it did not want to turn over.
Most recently, on January 14, the Supreme Court ordered the prosecution to give the defense a draft of a document between Bezeq and former Netanyahu aide Nir Hefetz, who turned state’s witness.
The defense lawyers say this may help prove that Hefetz acted independently regarding allegations in Case 4000 that have been attributed to both him and Netanyahu.
In Case 4000, Netanyahu is accused of a media bribery scheme in which he made government policy that allegedly favored Bezeq’s owner, Shaul Elovitch, in exchange for his media conglomerate Walla shifting their coverage of Netanyahu to being more positive to the prime minister.
Separately, the court ordered the state to hand over documents that relate to Shlomo Filber, a top Netanyahu aide turned state’s witness.
In addition, the court said experts on behalf of the defense could have access to the cellphone of former Walla CEO Ilan Yeshua, another central witness against Netanyahu. The reason given for seeking access was to attempt to recall or restore various actions he took that were erased or to at least determine what content was erased.
THERE WERE some additional documents and actions that the Supreme Court ordered, including telling the district court that it should review certain additional files from Case 1000 materials that did not make it into the indictment, as they might help the defense.
The prosecution’s response to these defeats seemed focused on spinning positive aspects of the ruling, saying the prosecution won on denying the defense 30 out of 35 items they had requested.
The district court has also ordered the prosecution to provide internal written documents detailing how and when Attorney-General Avichai Mandelblit approved different aspects of the investigation against Netanyahu.
The defense has said these documents expose that the police sometimes acted without Mandelblit’s approval, which will help them toss certain evidence that was acquired improperly.
Mandelblit has said the defense is mischaracterizing the issue and that all police actions were properly approved, but sometimes verbal approval was given and not written.
The court is expected to hear arguments relating to this issue on Monday, but it is not expected to delay the calling of witnesses.
Another major fight is the question of what must the prosecution prove to convict Netanyahu of media bribery in Case 4000.
The defense said the prosecution must show how each individual claim of media interference was illegal and problematic.
In contrast, prosecutor Yehudit Tirosh said they need only prove a critical mass of unusual requests from Netanyahu and his aides.
These requests would show a general level of control and interference in the Walla media outlet that goes beyond the standard negotiations between the press and politicians over access for coverage.
An additional significant point in dispute will be Netanyahu’s claims that police systematically bullied witnesses to fabricate lies to take him down.
The sides have agreed that this issue would be decided by the court only after the prosecution concludes its case, but before the defense would need to call witnesses. That mean it will be hotly litigated, but at a much later date.
Moreover, the prosecution rejected Netanyahu claims as well as those of Elovitch and his wife, Iris, that there had been arbitrary enforcement against them.
The defense lawyers criticized the prosecution for failing to indict Walla CEO Ilan Yeshua and said this showed they were only interested in taking down Netanyahu and some others around him, but not in getting to the truth.
The prosecution responded that Yeshua’s role and obligations as a private citizen were different, while also emphasizing that he had come forward to cooperate with police on his own.
Ben Tzur and Ben-Ari exchanged dueling letters last week in which the prosecution accused the defense of acting in a conflict of interest and of witness intimidation relating to Cases 1000 (the Illegal Gifts Affair) and 2000 (the Yediot Aharonot-Israel Hayom Affair).
Likewise, Ben Tzur accused the prosecution of trying to intimidate and delegitimize him and Netanyahu’s defense team.
Besides Netanyahu and the Elovitch family, Yediot Aharonot owner Arnon “Nuni” Mozes is also a defendant in the trial, accused of attempting to bribe Netanyahu in Case 2000.
That case suffered a blow when a key prosecution witness, Israel Hayom owner Sheldon Adelson, died on January 11, which means they cannot present his testimony against Netanyahu in court.
Other prosecution lawyers besides Ben-Ari and Tirosh include Amir Tabenkin and Asaf Isuk for Case 4000 and Keren Tzivran and Hadar Weinstein for Cases 1000 and 2000.
Originally, the trial’s witness stage was due to start in December, then in January and then in February. But the latest hearing was postponed from January 13 to February 8 because of COVID-19.
Knesset Speaker Yariv Levin (Likud) on Sunday called for the hearing to be postponed again due to the coronavirus crisis, though he has no role in the proceedings. The Blue and White Party slammed him for any attempt to interfere.
Lahav Harkov contributed to this report.