The evidentiary phase of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s trial on charges of fraud, bribery and breach of trust will begin on Monday, after a number of delays.
Prosecutor Liat Ben-Ari is to deliver a much-anticipated opening statement when the trial begins at the Jerusalem District Court, followed by testimony by Ilan Yeshua, the former CEO of the Walla News site and the key witness in the first case of three cases to be heard.
Netanyahu has arrived at the Jerusalem courthouse, where 300 of his supporters came to protest across the street from the 200 anti-Netanyahu demonstrators who were there waiting for him.
In this case, dubbed Case 4000, prosecutors allege that as communications minister, Netanyahu made decisions that benefited the owner of the Bezeq telecommunications company in exchange for favorable coverage on the Bezeq-owned Walla.
The court has ruled that Netanyahu must be present at the hearing, but accepted his request not to remain for Yeshua’s testimony. For its part, the prosecution said: “There is a real reason for the accused to be present for the opening statement, which is the opening of the entire prosecution, both in terms of the accused hearing what is said first-hand, and in terms of justice being seen.” The court said Netanyahu could depart after the prosecution’s opening statement “as long as [Netanyahu] understands the significance of his absence, including not being able to raise claims thereafter arising from his absence.”
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The evidentiary phase is the key part of the trial, in which the witnesses will present their versions of events and the defense attorneys will question them.
Yeshua, the first witness, is expected to testify regarding claims that Walla gave favorable coverage to Netanyahu at the request of Walla owner Shaul Elovitch. The latter, who was the controlling shareholder of the telecommunications giant Bezeq, is accused of bribing the prime minister, which, according to the indictment against Netanyahu and Elovitch, he did in exchange for regulatory benefits the prime minister gave Bezeq when he was communications minister.
The first group of witnesses also includes the state’s witnesses Shlomo Filber and Nir Hefetz. Filber, a former director general of the Communications Ministry, has testified that Netanyahu instructed him to treat Elovitch and Hefetz well. Hefetz, who was Netanyahu’s media adviser, has testified that he acted as an intermediary between the Netanyahu family and the directors of Bezeq and Walla.
The second group of witnesses are to testify in the so-called Case 1000 – the illicit gifts affair. First up will be businessman Arnon Milchan, who according to the indictment gave Netanyahu gifts valued at hundreds of thousands of shekels. The prosecution recently announced that it had moved up the testimony of the witnesses in this case, following a report in Haaretz that the prosecutors feared the prime minister could exert undue influence on Milchan. The latter reported that attorney Boaz Ben Zur, who represented him in the past and is now representing Netanyahu, had suggested that he speak with the prime minister, and Netanyahu himself said he spoke to Milchan after the indictment was served.
Netanyahu is also accused of fraud and breach of trust in Case 2000, in which he is accused of attempting to receive better coverage in one of the country’s leading dailies, Yedioth Ahronoth, by striking a deal with the paper’s publisher, Arnon Mozes. According to the indictment, Netanyahu promised Mozes that he would promote a law to weaken a competitor, the free daily Israel Hayom, in exchange for better coverage for him in the media outlets owned by the Yedioth Ahronoth group. Mozes is accused of attempting to bribe Netanyahu.
In the previous hearing in February, Netanyahu denied all charges against him and left the courtroom shortly thereafter.
Also on Monday, President Reuven Rivlin will consult with party representatives prior to deciding whom he should ask to form the next government after Israel's March 23 election.
Representatives of all the parties are slated to go to the President’s Residence at 45-minute intervals. Netanyahu's Likud, the largest party, will go first.