Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on trial: play-by-play

Netanyahu's lawyer accuses the police and prosecution of acting in a partisan way that could topple the government.

The trial against Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the District Court in Jerusalem. PM Netanyahu is on trial on criminal allegations of bribery, fraud and breach of trust. February 08, 2021.  (photo credit: REUVEN KASTRO/POOL)
The trial against Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the District Court in Jerusalem. PM Netanyahu is on trial on criminal allegations of bribery, fraud and breach of trust. February 08, 2021.
(photo credit: REUVEN KASTRO/POOL)
The final pretrial hearing for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu opens Monday. He is in attendance for only the second time since the court process began and will formally deny the indictment against him.
9:00 a.m. - Netanyahu enters the courtroom and stands at the back talking to his lawyers. He positions himself behind an open window that obstructs him from the view of the camera. 
Outside the courthouse, protesters can be heard chanting. The noise is loud enough to be heard from the inside. 
Protesters outside the prime minister's residence ahead of the trial Monday morning. (Credit: Ben Cohen)Protesters outside the prime minister's residence ahead of the trial Monday morning. (Credit: Ben Cohen)
9:20 a.m. - Head judge Rivka Friedman-Feldman reads out the case number and confirms that the defendants are in the room. 
The prime minister stands before the court and confirms that the response submitted to the court is his: "I confirm the written answer submitted in my name," he says. 
9:40 a.m. - Only 20 minutes later, Netanyahu leaves the courtroom - with permission. Netanyahu's lawyer, Boaz Ben Tzur, continues arguing the technicalities of the attorney-general's allegedly flawed conduct as if nothing has changed.
9:47 a.m. - The prime minister’s motorcade departs from the courthouse on Saladin Street. He is gone less than an hour after the hearing formally began.
9:51 a.m. - Ben Tzur talks for so long, around a half an hour, that he has to swap his mask. Feldman tells him to wrap things up.
9:56 a.m. - The lawyer hands the judges a printed timeline of the attorney-general's alleged flawed permit-giving process. 
"We should have gotten a short document from the attorney-general in which he says that he had permitted to launch a criminal investigation," Ben Tzur says. "There is no such document."
An argument erupts:
"You're ignoring the fact that there's a signed memo from the attorney-general that says he permitted the investigation," Judge Moshe Bar Am responds.
"The determining time [for the permit] is the actual criminal investigation. If that didn't happen, it's a criminal offense," Ben Tzur says.
10:07 a.m. - Then the lawyer steps up his argument: "This criminal investigation could result in a change of regime, hence procedures have to be impeccable."
He says that the police and prosecution acted in a partisan way against Netanyahu and that the Police and Israel Securities Authority investigated cases 1000 and 4000 without permits, "which is very severe."
He holds up court documents with several blackouts. 
"If this fragment was a permit to investigate [Shlomo] Filber, to investigate Case 4000, then Case 4000 would have never been investigated by the ISA, it would have been investigated by Police."
10:44 a.m. - Lawyer Amit Hadad begins arguing for Netanyahu: "There's no hint [in the memo] to Case 1000, they're only talking about Case 2000."
And he said that investigations could be seen from as early as April. 
"There is no question that those took place prior to the attorney-general's permit," he says. 
11:01 a.m. - Friedman-Feldman tells the defense it must cease to ramble.
"Who is speaking on behalf of the prosecution?" she asks.
Lead prosecutor Liat Ben-Ari starts to talk: "We have not heard anything new from Boaz Ben-Tzur," she says. "We're heard it all and responded to it all. But we would like to say that there was no violation. There was an attorney-general permit. It is all documented."
Friedman-Feldman: "Boaz is saying there is no appropriate permit."
Ben-Ari: "There is no demand for agreement in writing... Things were documented and written down, even if that is not how Boaz wants them to be."
11:15 a.m. - It is suddenly revealed by the prosecution that the police had questioned Yair Netanyahu's limo driver, Roi Rosen, about whether the prime minister's son had received illegal gifts from billionaire James Packer. 
At early stages of Case 1000, the Illegal Gifts Affair, the state prosecution and the police were trying to understand how deeply Sarah and Yair Netanyahu were in passing on gifts.
It was already known that Sarah Netanyahu was deeply involved in coordinating receiving gifts from billionaire Arnon Milchin.
Part of Case 1000 details how at a later point, Milchin got sick of funding the alleged illegal gifts of expensive champagne and cigars to the Netanyahu family and asked Packer to help with the project. Packer was questioned regarding alleged illegal gifts he gave to the Netanyahu family, but Monday was the first revelation of a potential connection between Packer and Yair.
It appears that it did not come up until now as the prosecution decided not to file an indictment against Yair.
Instead it only came up on Monday when the prosecution explained why the police had questioned Yair's limo driver after the defense raised the interrogation as being done without any basis or authority.
11:20 a.m. - Judith Tirosh-Gross, director of the ISA Securities Department in the Tel Aviv District Attorney's Office, steps up. She starts discussing Case 4000 and says that there is an attempt to paint a false picture of the situation. Her arguments focus on law enforcement adhering to proper procedure for launching an investigation into the prime minister's alleged wrongdoing.
Judith Tirosh-Gross (Credit: Courtesy)Judith Tirosh-Gross (Credit: Courtesy)
11:50 a.m. - The court has moved on to the subject of bringing in witnesses. 
For Case 4000, at least 15 witnesses will be providing testimony and will be the first of the three cases that will be dealt with by the court. 
12:23 p.m. - Attorneys for Bezeq ex-owner Shaul Elovitch protest starting with Case 4000, which is the largest of the three cases. 
12:49 p.m. - Ben-Tzur askes for a three- to four-month postponement of the next phase of the trial, which would place it occuring long after the election. In contrast, the prosecution wants the trial to start immediately.
12:50 p.m. -
The court adjourned with the judges making no final decision. An announcement could come later on Monday.
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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.