Prosecution to Netanyahu: No skipping out on first hearing of trial

Netanyahu has not yet formally filed a request to avoid attending on Sunday. The prime minister is being charged with bribery, fraud and breach of trust.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (L) and Attorney-General Avichai Mandelblit (R) (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (L) and Attorney-General Avichai Mandelblit (R)
The state prosecution and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Tuesday took shots at each other over whether he can avoid attending the opening of his public corruption trial on Sunday.
Since the sides could not resolve the issue, Netanyahu filed a motion with the Jerusalem District Court on Tuesday night to resolve 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 will be 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 said Monday night that if he filed a request, it would be because the first hearing is just 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 based on past experience where the number of security guards appeared to be smaller, but the agency declined to respond.
The spokesman confirmed that Netanyahu would be present at more-substantive hearings, such as the opening statements and the testimony of key witnesses.
Many top public officials have skipped the first technical hearing of their trials in the past, just as Netanyahu may do. The “real” trial with witnesses will begin in three months to a year later.
Netanyahu will have to attend whenever he is called as a witness.
At the same time, critics will likely note that Netanyahu is also seeking to avoid any pictures of him in court any earlier in his new term than necessary.
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 that it was still 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.
As things stand, despite several media outlets requesting a live broadcast for the public, the discussion will only be broadcast to two other courtrooms via CCTV.
The public corruption trial will cover cases 1000, 2000 and 4000, regarding bribery, fraud and breach of trust.
The judges will be Rivka Friedman-Feldman, Moses BarAm and Oded Shaham.
Blue and White leader Benny Gantz told Channel 12 on Tuesday that Netanyahu told him he would come to his trial, and he believed him.
“You will see next week, he said. “He has no choice.”
Asked if forming a government with Netanyahu despite his indictment kept him in power, Gantz said: “I came to serve Israel, not Netanyahu. Israel needs a government. If someone benefited from that, so be it.”
Gil Hoffman contributed to this report.