Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu abused his executive power to hand out illegal benefits as part of a wide-ranging media bribery scheme, the prosecution charged Monday at the opening hearing of the Israeli leader’s public corruption trial.
Prosecutor Liat Ben Ari said Netanyahu “abused his power to give illegal benefits in coordination with central media outlets to further his personal interests.”
“Everyone is equal in the eyes of the law, and all people are equal before the court and the judges: the great and the small, the rich and the poor, the powerful and the simple,” she said.
Ben Ari said the case was one of the gravest in Israel’s history.
In response, Netanyahu said the prosecution “improperly used law-enforcement power” as part of a “witch hunt. They did not interrogate or probe for crimes; they probed for a specific person: me.”
Netanyahu said he is “someone who bears the flag of the rule of law” and therefore “arrived at the court to listen to the prosecution,” but was disappointed by what he characterized as abusing the law to try to topple him at all costs.
As an example, he said, the prosecution had ignored “not just any law, but a Basic Law requiring receiving approval from the attorney-general to open a criminal probe” against the prime minister.
Earlier in the day at the Jerusalem District Court, Ben Ari said the question for the court was not whether the articles at the Walla media outlet were done objectively or were balanced at a given moment, but rather what the illegal influence was behind the scenes leading to those articles.
The real story here is about power, she said, citing the power of Netanyahu as prime minister, of top media tycoons and of attempts to influence the course of the country’s elections, including in 2013 and 2015.
“No one” other than Netanyahu as prime minister “had the full power to give out the benefits” to the tycoons in the case (who are also defendants) that they sought, Ben Ari said.
The benefits given by Netanyahu to Bezeq and Walla owner Shaul Elovitch were worth hundreds of millions of shekels, she said.
The trial started with the prosecution outlining the three public corruption affairs, followed by the initial witness in the first-ever public corruption trial of a sitting prime minister.
Next, the prosecution shifted from Case 4000 to Case 2000, the Yediot Aharonot-Israel Hayom Affair.
Case 2000 is an “overwhelmingly clear bribery case” in which Yediot owner Arnon Mozes tried to bribe Netanyahu to help him harm competition from Israel Hayom, Ben Ari said.
Netanyahu needed Yediot’s positive coverage for his political future and elections, and he willfully misled Mozes into thinking he would advance the bribery scheme, including by taking actions that could have advanced the scheme, she said.
Furthermore, Netanyahu is guilty in Case 2000 because not only did he fail to refuse to go along with the bribery scheme, he actively worked to make it appear that it would go through, she added.
Ben Ari also addressed Case 1000, known as the Illegal Gifts Affair.
Before the court could order a 10-minute break to prepare for calling the first witness, Netanyahu’s lawyer Boaz Ben Tzur and Shaul Elovitch’s lawyer Jacques Chen slammed the prosecution’s opening statement as “violating the rights of my client.”
The opening statement improperly added new details beyond the purview of the indictment, which is supposed to govern the boundaries of the trial, they said.
Presiding Judge Rivkah Freidman-Feldman allowed the two lawyers a few statements, but then she aggressively cut them off, saying that if the prosecution broke any rules, the defense would have the opportunity to raise this at the set time for it to bring its case.
The defense had already filed a detailed rebuttal of all of the charges in writing, she added.
Netanyahu was present and remained until the end of the prosecution’s opening statement. He left before the first witness, former Walla CEO Ilan Yeshua, was called to the stand.
Prosecutors Ben Ari and Yehudit Tirosh faced off against Netanyahu’s lawyers Ben Tzur and Amit Hadad as judges Friedman-Feldman, Moshe Bar-Am and Oded Shaham oversaw the proceedings.
NETANYAHU IS accused of bribery for illegally influencing government communications policy in exchange for positive media coverage in Case 4000, the Bezeq-Walla Affair.
In Case 2000, the Yediot Aharonot-Israel Hayom Affair, he is accused of breach of trust for trying to reduce Israel Hayom’s competitiveness in exchange for more positive coverage from Yediot.
In Case 1000, the Illegal Gifts Affair, he is accused of breach of trust for receiving expensive cigars and champagne valued at nearly NIS 700,000. The gifts were received from people with whom he may have had a conflict of interest for trying to help them in the business sector.
According to the amended indictment, from January 17-19, 2013, days before the January 22 election, Netanyahu made no fewer than six demands to Walla owner Shaul Elovitch through intermediaries to influence media coverage positively for him and negatively for Naftali Bennett and the Bayit Yehudi Party.
All of the Netanyahu-Elovitch plans led to the coverage the prime minister sought, including negative coverage of Bennett’s wife allegedly eating at a nonkosher restaurant, in exchange for the prime minister helping Elovitch’s Bezeq obtain NIS 1 billion ($300 million) in profits.
Eventually, there were 315 alleged incidents of Netanyahu interfering with Walla’s news coverage from 2013 until December 2016.
The former Walla CEO is expected to testify for approximately five full-day hearings, followed by being cross-examined by Netanyahu’s lawyers and lawyers for Elovitch – all of which could easily be the trial’s focus until mid-May.