Netanyahu, prosecution fight over trial start date

The legal war runs parallel to the public opinion war.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stands trial for bribery, fraud and breach of trust on May 24, 2020. (photo credit: AMIT SHABI/YEDIOTH ACHRONOTH/POOL)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stands trial for bribery, fraud and breach of trust on May 24, 2020.
(photo credit: AMIT SHABI/YEDIOTH ACHRONOTH/POOL)
The state prosecution and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s lawyers on Sunday fought over his public corruption trial start date, with Netanyahu asking for spring 2021 and the prosecution asking for it to be much sooner.
State prosecution team leader Liat Ben Ari told the three Jerusalem District Court judges that she would get back to them with a specific suggested date, but her comments suggested that she believes the trial could start within around three months.
The court ruled that the next hearing will take place on July 19. The date of the actual trial is not yet known.
Netanyahu is the first prime minister in Israel’s history to go on trial while in office; it will take place at the Jerusalem district court. He is facing charges of fraud, bribery and breach of trust.
As the legal war went forward, there was a parallel war of protesters outside the courthouse, with public statements by Netanyahu’s spokesman and supporters as well as by his critics.
A major dramatic moment was when a corona-era masked Netanyahu entered the courtroom, but avoided sitting with the other defendants until the photographers left the room.
When asked by the court if he understood the indictment, Netanyahu responded, "Yes. I have read the indictment and I understand it."
Security around the courthouse was unprecedented, with Shin Bet (Israel Security Service) and a massive police presence cutting off traffic for hundreds of meters and at junctions in several directions.
Almost every inch of the courthouse inside was covered with security and media – although due to coronavirus social distancing regulations, media were put in two courtrooms adjacent to the main courtroom to watch the trial on closed circuit-TV.
One of the room’s CCTV had no sound, leading to a few journalists running into the other room at the last second before any of the security officials nearby would stop them.
In contrast to the prosecution’s position of moving forward speedily, Netanyahu lawyer Micha Feitman said they would need two to three months just to know what their trial strategy would be. After that they would file pretrial motions to seek acquittal without witnesses and motions to attack prosecution claims to keep some documents confidential, he said.
The strategy of all of the defense lawyers was to tell the judges that they cannot set a date for witnesses, but need several months to fight with prosecution over documents they want. Typically, the prosecution makes internal debate documents classified. But defense lawyers may argue that if their claims relate to improprieties in turning former top Netanyahu aide Nir Hefetz or others into state’s witnesses, that they should get some limited access.

NIR HEFETZ, the prime minister’s former media advisor, turned state’s witness against Netanyahu in Case 4000 – the Bezeq/Walla affair. Netanyahu’s second lawyer Amit Hadad said that the trial cannot start with one case if there are disputes over documents in other cases.
“It became clear to us during the pre-indictment hearing that all three cases are linked and nothing can start until all document disputes are resolved,” he said.
 State prosecution team leader Liat Ben Ari said there were 1,200 legal files in the Holyland trial, whereas in all three Netanyahu cases there are only a few hundred legal files.”
I am not underplaying these cases,” she said, but added that she believes the case can move forward faster than the defendants are saying.
Ben Ari was also the head of the prosecution in the Holyland trial against former prime minister Ehud Olmert.
Netanyahu tried to avoid having to attend the first day of the trial but the prime minister was compelled to attend by the court.
The judges and the prosecution did consent to Netanyahu absenting himself from future procedural hearings.
Lawyer for Shaul and Iris Elovitch, Jacques Chen, said that the trial will be turned into a “circus” if state prosecution witnesses continue to interview with the media now that the trial has started. He asked the judges to issue official warnings to all witnesses prohibiting them from doing so.
Earlier, at Sunday’s cabinet meeting, Netanyahu and Alternate Prime Minister Benny Gantz made a point of saying nothing about the trial in their remarks to ministers. However, the trial will hover as a cloud over virtually all major government decisions for the foreseeable future.
A key to Sunday’s hearing is how quickly or slowly the judges decide to move the trial forward. The trial schedule could have a huge impact on Netanyahu’s transfer of power to Blue and White’s Benny Gantz in November 2022, as well as what Netanyahu’s status will be after that transfer.
The other defendants are Bezeq and Walla owner Shaul Elovitch and his wife, Iris(represented by Jacques Chen), as well as Yediot Ahronot owner Arnon “Noni” Mozes (represented by Navit Negev).
Netanyahu himself must physically attend after a court order regarding the issue on Wednesday, despite his request for an exemption from attending until a more substantive hearing.

THE MAIN courtroom at the Jerusalem District Court was presided over by judges Rivka Friedman-Feldman, Moshe Bar-Am and Oded Shaham, and was also expected to include Deputy State Attorney Liat Ben Ari and senior prosecutor Yonatan Tadmor, the four defendants, one defense lawyer for each defendant and security for Netanyahu.
Ben Ari has also been given extra security protection due to threats against herand to the prosecution in general.
Mandelblit announced on November 21 that he would indict Netanyahu for bribery in Case 4000 (the Bezeq-Walla Affair), for breach of public trust in Case 1000 (the Illegal Gifts Affair) and for breach of public trust in Case 2000 (the Yediot Aharonot-Israel Hayom Affair).
Due to fights over potential immunity, the Netanyahu indictment was not filed until January 28 – and due to the election and the coronavirus crisis, the trial’s start date was delayed by several months.
In Case 4000, Netanyahu is accused of involvement in a media bribery scheme in which Walla owner Shaul Elovitch allegedly gave him positive coverage in exchange for the prime minister making government policies favoring Elovitch’s Bezeq company to the tune of around NIS 1.8 billion.
This is the hardest case for Netanyahu since he faces accusations by two close former aides turned state witnesses, Shlomo Filber and Nir Hefetz.
In Case 1000, Netanyahu is accused of receiving hundreds of thousands of shekels in gifts from rich tycoons, mostly from Arnon Milchan, in exchange for help with business and personal-legal initiatives.
The charge itself is for acting in situations in which the prime minister had a conflict of interest, since no actual quid pro quo can be proven. The absence of a quid pro quo makes this case much weaker than Case 4000, but it is still viewed by most legal scholars as having at least a 50/50 chance.
Regarding Case 2000, Netanyahu was accused of working with Yediot and Israel Hayom to reduce the latter’s competition with the former in exchange for positive coverage of Netanyahu.
The deal never went through, but the law has crimes of attempted bribery and breach of trust which can apply nevertheless.
Mandelblit was never a fan of Case 2000, but decided he needed to charge Netanyahu with something once they indicted Yediot owner Arnon “Noni” Mozes with bribery.