Netanyahu formally denies corruption charges

Court hints witnesses to be called only after the election

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)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s defense team fought with the prosecution on Monday at the Jerusalem District Court over calling witnesses in his public corruption trial before the March 23 election.
It seemed that the judges were leaning toward calling the first witness in late March or early April, which they would present as a compromise between the sides.
Read play by play of Monday morning's trial >>> 
In an interim ruling issued hours after the hearing ended, the court instructed the prosecution to provide a list of exhibits for the first stage of witness testimony by March 1 as well as a list of police witnesses by February 15.
The judges explicitly said they would not set a date for calling witnesses until deciding outstanding pretrial issues, including those related to whether the probe into Netanyahu was initiated properly.
At the hearing earlier Monday, Netanyahu’s lawyer Boaz Ben Tzur demanded that no witnesses be called “for another 120 days” to give the defense sufficient time to prepare for such a mega-case, which would also incidentally get the prime minister past coalition negotiations if he forms the next government.
Prosecutors Liat Ben Ari and Yehudit Tirosh said they could be ready to call the first witness, former Walla CEO Ilan Yeshua, “within one week.”
However, under questioning from Judge Moshe Bar Am, Tirosh responded that if she needed to send a list of documents relating to her first 15 witnesses to the defense, this would take her three weeks, which is where the new March 1 date comes from.
Given that the defense would be expected to receive two to three weeks to review these documents before witnesses are called, that would easily move the first witness beyond March 23.
Judge Rivkah Friedman Feldman echoed the prosecution’s arguments that the defense had between one to two years to prepare for witnesses. But ultimately the judges did not seem anxious to call the first witness before March 23.
A parallel fight between the sides was the prosecution’s desire to start the trial with Case 4000, the Bezeq-Walla media bribery affair, while the defense prefers to start with either Case 1000, the Illegal Gifts Affair, or Case 2000, the Yediot Aharonot-Israel Hayom Affair of attempted media bribery.
Case 4000 is the prosecution’s strongest case and contains the only full bribery charge against Netanyahu. Case 2000 is the weakest case, and Case 1000 is viewed as borderline.
In Cases 1000 and 2000, Netanyahu is charged only with fraud and breach of public trust, as opposed to bribery.
Earlier at the hearing, Netanyahu attended for only the second time and rose before the court to confirm that his lawyers’ response denying the indictment was correct, saying, “I confirm the written answer submitted in my name.”
However, unlike the May 2020 hearing that he attended, Netanyahu requested that his supporters avoid a public protest in light of coronavirus concerns.
While at the hearing, Netanyahu used the disinfectant liquid on his desk repeatedly.
There were some anti-Netanyahu protesters nearby who could be heard in the courthouse chanting against him. But most of the neighborhood was locked down by the police and the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency).
Netanyahu attended the first 40 minutes of the four-hour hearing, having received permission to leave early. The other defendants, Bezeq and Walla owner Shaul Elovitch, his wife, Iris, and Yediot Aharonot owner Arnon “Noni” Mozes all remained.
A significant portion of the hearing saw fights between Ben Ari and Tirosh versus Ben Tzur and Netanyahu’s other lawyer, Amit Hadad, about whether Attorney-General Avichai Mandleblit had properly approved all police investigative activities relating to the prime minister.
Mandelblit had only approved police investigations relating to a separate Bezeq case, which will eventually be tried in the Tel Aviv District Court, but not regarding Case 4000, Ben Tzur said. Key activities in Cases 1000 and 2000 had not received approvals from Mandelblit, Hadad said.
Hadad’s mention of an example for which Mandelblit had not given proper preapproval led to a revelation about Yair Netanyahu’s limousine driver, Roi Rosen.
In response, the prosecution said the police had questioned Rosen about whether the prime minister’s son had received illegal gifts from Australian billionaire James Packer.
At the early stages of Case 1000, the state prosecution and the police were trying to understand how deeply Sarah and Yair Netanyahu were involved in passing on gifts.
It was already known that Sarah Netanyahu was deeply involved in coordinating the receipt of gifts with Israeli billionaire Arnon Milchan.
Part of Case 1000 details how at a later point, Milchan 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 limousine driver after the defense questioned whether the interrogation had been carried out with any authority.
The prosecution maintained that Mandelblit had approved the questioning.
Likewise, Tirosh said Mandelblit had approved investigations of Netanyahu in Case 4000, adding that Ben Tzur was trying to disingenuously separate Bezeq from Netanyahu.
Instead, she said, from the start there were three distinct pieces in the Bezek investigation, and one piece always related to Netanyahu.
Prosecutors were all along trying to understand why top Netanyahu aide and then Communications Ministry director-general Shlomo Filber would give Bezeq allegedly illegal favoritism, Tirosh said.
These suspicions eventually led Filber to turn against Netanyahu, which led to the explosive media bribery allegations against the prime minister in Case 4000.
However, even if Tirosh is right about the connection between the Bezeq case and Case 4000, Netanyahu’s lawyers said there was no explicit written approval by Mandelblit of police investigative actions.
The prosecution admitted that their meeting transcripts do not have a formal part where Mandelblit is recorded as explaining why he approved, but it was plain from the transcripts of their dozens of meetings on these issues that this is what happened in those meetings.
Mandelblit issued memoranda after the fact referring to decisions he made at those meetings, the prosecution said.
The judges appeared impatient with Ben Tzur, who spent hours arguing about the issue. They also cautioned the prosecution that they must do a better job explaining exactly when approvals took place.