The Jerusalem District Court on Monday rejected requests from lawyers of former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the other defendants to halt the public corruption trial due to new revelations about how the police hacked cellphones belonging to witnesses and suspects in the case.
The court did halt the testimony of Cable Authority legal adviser and witness Dana Neufeld an hour early and ordered the prosecution to provide an update on the police spying scandal by 2 p.m. Tuesday instead of an evening deadline.
Neufeld’s testimony was halted when the prosecution started to ask about text messages between her and Shlomo Filber, a former top Netanyahu aide turned state’s witness.
After losing two rounds of earlier arguments to halt hearing witnesses pending clarifications regarding the police cellphone-hacking scandal, the defense finally convinced the judges that it would be unfair to let Neufeld refer to Filber’s texts, given that they might be at the center of the hacking saga.
All of this came after Shaul Elovitch’s lawyer, Jacques Chen, had told the court, “An enormous plague has broken out” with the police spying on different people swept up in the Netanyahu case.
He demanded that the court stop the calling of witnesses until the situation is clarified and that it reconsider its decision from Friday to continue the case and to only resolve the police spying issues later in the week.
“There cannot be a trial of justice like this,” Chen said. “We cannot learn the truth.”
“We are not actors and extras in a show,” he added.
Judge Rivka Friedman-Feldman initially tried to dismiss Chen’s remarks, asking him to wait until after Neufeld was called to testify on Tuesday.
“You are talking about what someone reported in the media,” she said. “The prosecution is doing a review,” implying the court would not consider the police spying issue until after Neufeld testified.
In response, Chen said: “I am not even merely talking about the rights of the defendants. What about the public’s faith? How can this train continue to run?”
“The government cannot just say ‘next witness,’” as if there was not an earthquake around the spying scandal situation, he added.
Lead prosecutor Yehudit Tirosh said she still had no substantive report on the police spying issue but is committed to giving an update on the Netanyahu case by Tuesday, as ordered by the court.
Tirosh said the review regarding the impact of the police spying in the Netanyahu trial was being expedited separately from the wider examination of the entire police force in a range of cases over the past several years.
As the hearing continued, Friedman-Feldman changed her tone and started to press Tirosh about whether the prosecution would present a full picture on Tuesday.
Tirosh said the prosecution was even checking beyond Cases 1000, 2000 and 4000.
Netanyahu’s lawyer Amit Hadad said the prosecution was not looking into police spying in the “old Case 1000,” the Illegal Gifts Affair, which was closed and not included in the final indictment. The police could not be believed because they kept saying, “There was nothing, there was nothing, there was nothing,” he said, adding that the court needed to halt the trial until an outside check has been done on the police spying.
NSO Group, maker of the Pegasus spyware that was used, has a way to check what the police spied on, even if the police erased it, Hadad said.
“If there is information, we need to check it” and see who did what and when, Friedman-Feldman said, adding, “This is all early. This is too early” for the defense lawyers to make broad claims against the prosecution.
She then called a recess for the judges to deliberate in their chambers.
Around 10:30 a.m., the court rejected the defense’s arguments and allowed Neufeld to testify.
Neufeld is an important witness for the prosecution since she was one of the few nonpolitical officials who signed off on the YES-Bezeq merger that is at the center of the Case 4000 media bribery charge against Netanyahu and Bezeq and Walla owner Shaul Elovitch.
However, on Monday, before her testimony was stopped, Neufeld testified for nearly five hours about how, until Filber was brought in to head the Communications Ministry, the entire ministry was against the merger unless a series of strong conditions were met.
These conditions would have potentially systematically harmed Bezeq by encouraging greater competition in the telecommunications field.
Avi Berger, who was Communications Ministry director-general until May 2015 and was at odds with Netanyahu and Elovitch, had conditioned the merger on those reforms.
Neufeld testified that she had only approved the merger without those conditions after Netanyahu fired Berger and in July 2015 appointed Filber, who pressed her intensely to approve it from the start of his term.
Her testimony can help the prosecution present her as having approved the merger only under pressure from the political class and over the objections of the majority of the professional experts.
The defense is expected on cross-examination to try to get her to make some equivocal statements about the merger, which it succeeded to some extent in doing when cross-examining Berger.