The public corruption trial of former prime minister and opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu reopened before the Jerusalem District Court on Monday after a three-month delay.
Despite the delay, the case is considered a major reason leading to the formation of the current coalition that dethroned Netanyahu.
The delay was caused by disputes between the prosecution and the defense over new evidence that emerged on the cellphone of the case’s first witness, former Walla CEO Ilan Yeshua.
Yeshua testified for the prosecution and was cross-examined by the defense in dozens of hearings from April to June in Case 4000, the Bezeq-Walla Media Bribery Affair.
The prosecution has alleged that Netanyahu used his powers to favor Bezeq in telecommunications policy in exchange for favorable media coverage from the Walla news site. Both companies are owned by co-defendant Shaul Elovitch.
The trial will eventually turn to Case 1000, the Illegal Gifts Affair; and Case 2000, the Yediot Aharonot-Israel Hayom Affair. But those cases may be several months or more away.
On Monday, the prosecution and the defense continued their dispute over the cellphone evidence from Yeshua for the earlier hours of the case. Yeshua then restarted his testimony, which will continue in parallel to the dispute over the new evidence.
According to the defense, the shape of the case should change to allow them to call many political officials and Netanyahu’s competitors as witnesses.
This would allow them to prove that Yeshua had played the same “political access for media access” games with others that he did with Netanyahu and disprove any bribery charge.
In contrast, the prosecution requested to re-question former Walla editor Avi Alkalai regarding a range of new evidence that could help their case to convict Netanyahu.
In response, the defense said the prosecution should not be rewarded with a “second bite at the apple” for holding back evidence from both sides or incompetently missing evidence later identified by the defense.
Further, it said this would unfairly allow the prosecution to use Alkalai to critique the defense’s arguments on cross-examination, where the defense is supposed to mostly have the element of surprise and the last word.
The prosecution said it did not even need court approval, let alone the defense’s approval, to re-question Alkalai once the defense had “opened the door” to the new evidence.
The judges appeared to suggest a compromise in which the police would not do any re-questioning, but instead the court would simply invite all new witnesses to testify, and then each side could individually object to problematic evidence.
Next, the court would decide on a specific issue as the disputes came up.
Both sides were weighing this option, but they did not commit before Yeshua started to testify again.
Yeshua’s testimony on Monday focused on more of his dealings with other politicians besides Netanyahu in the ongoing battle between the sides about whether the former prime minister had received special treatment and provided more concrete financial benefits than his rivals.
The trial has been frozen since June 16, when the defense accused the prosecution of covering up evidence on Yeshua’s cellphone that could help acquit him.
In contrast, the prosecution said it had disclosed huge volumes of documents from the cellphone and that it had simply never checked the other documents, believing they did not relate to the case.
After being ordered by the court, the prosecution eventually undertook a massive project to vet the remaining cellphone files and turned over extensive additional documents to the defense.
But the dispute then reignited as the prosecution said it had found new evidence against Netanyahu in the documents, while the defense opposed the prosecution being allowed to add new evidence.
It appears that the additional evidence was missed because, as extensive as the previous evidence from Yeshua’s cellphone was about Case 4000, the prosecution had focused on text messages between Yeshua and Netanyahu messengers or Shaul and Iris Elovitch and had not dug deeply into messages Yeshua sent to other politicians or third parties.
Until the court in mid-June ordered the prosecution to perform searches of these text messages and provide new documents to the defense, the state’s position was that such documents were not relevant to the case.
In contrast, the defense argued that such documents could show that Yeshua and Walla gave special treatment to many politicians who interacted directly with him as CEO and not only to Netanyahu.
They hope this analogy will disprove any bribery charge.
Though the prosecution turned the new evidence over to the defense, it still believes it will not help Netanyahu because only he, out of all of the politicians, made a deal with Elovitch to systematically influence coverage at Walla from 2013-2016 and used government powers to “pay” for this slanted coverage.
The discovery of the new evidence only occurred because the prosecution had accidentally given defense lawyers some text messages between Yeshua and other politicians, leading the defense to correctly guess that there was far more material that they were not given.
It was unclear when the court would decide regarding the new evidence.