Lawyers to Netanyahu: Show Up in Court for Ex-aide’s Testimony, It Could ‘Deter’ Him

Netanyahu's legal aid says the witness' weakness could be exploited by his presence in the courtroom

Netael Bandel
Netael Bandel
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Netanyahu and Hefetz in 2015.
Netanyahu and Hefetz in 2015.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum
Netael Bandel
Netael Bandel

Opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu has been consulting his attorneys in recent days on whether to ask to be excused from court when state’s witness Nir Hefetz, his former media adviser, testifies in his corruption trial.

In several of the conversations, his lawyers have advised him to appear because it would have “a great deal of weight and influence on the witness and may even deter him.”

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Sources close to the former prime minister said he will only make a final decision in the next few days, but at the moment he is inclined toward appearing in court. If Netanyahu does ask to be excused, the prosecution is expected to oppose it.

Apart from his court appearance to hear the reading of his indictment and the initial hearing of the evidence, Netanyahu has been absent from the proceedings when prosecution witnesses testified, by permission of the three-judge panel presiding over the case.

In discussions about whether to attend the Hefetz testimony, Netanyahu’s legal advisers said they believed the witness was still in thrall to his former boss and that this weakness could be exploited by Netanyahu’s presence in the courtroom.

They noted that Hefetz, in an interview with the “Uvda” television program, had spoken of how much he appreciated Netanyahu and had called “Netanyahu’s abilities rare, unique. I think he is on a world-class level,” and even expressed hope that he would be exonerated.

Hearing of Nir Hefetz's lawsuit against Amir Ohana at the Tel Aviv Magistrate's Court in Tel Aviv in 2020Credit: Moti Milrod

Netanyahu’s attorneys, led by Boaz Ben-Zur, explained to their client that the prosecution witnesses who had testified so far had not spoken about Netanyahu first-hand, except for one brief meeting mentioned by Avi Berger. By contrast, the Hefetz testimony will address many key events in which he and Netanyahu were present. In any case, the lawyers said, the odds of the judges approving Netanyahu’s absence were slim.

A source in the prosecutor’s office said that in lieu of any special circumstance, it would be difficult to justify the former prime minister’s non-attendance during the testimony.

In response to Netanyahu’s previous request to absent himself from the start of the hearings of the evidence, the prosecution had insisted he appear for the opening statement of prosecutor Liat Ben-Ari. But it left the question of his presence during the testimony of the first witness, Ilan Yeshua, to the court’s discretion.

“The prosecution is of the opinion that there is a concrete reason for the presence of the defendant for the opening statement, which sets out the prosecution’s entire case,” prosecutors said at the time.

The first time Netanyahu asked to be excused from court was for the reading of the indictment. Judges Rivka Freidman-Feldman, Moshe Baram and Oded Shaham rejected Netanyahu’s arguments, saying the explanations he offered didn’t justify exempting him from the usual practice of the court. “That is how it is for every criminal trial and this is how it will be for the current criminal trial,” the judges wrote in their decision. Netanyahu had claimed, among other things, that as prime minister his appearance was unnecessary and would cost the taxpayers.

The second time came at the evidentiary stage, when Netanyahu had appealed to the court to allow him to absent himself during the Yeshua testimony.

He agreed to appear for the opening statements of the trial but left the minute Ben-Ari completed her speech. Still, Netanyahu’s request to be exempt from the rest of the hearing to date was accepted by the court.

Hefetz’s testimony is scheduled to begin on Tuesday. His cross-examination will deal in part with the way he was questioned and the pressure exerted on him to turn state’s evidence. Over the weekend, Haaretz reported that Hefetz intended to sue the government for violating his rights during the investigation.

The woman who was summoned by police in Hefetz’s presence filed a similar lawsuit against the government in February 2020. However, the case has been suspended until the Netanyahu case is completed, due to the principle of priority for criminal proceedings over civil proceedings. This is likely to be the case with Hefetz’s suit, if he files one.

Haaretz reported that the details of an investigation had been given to the defense attorneys by mistake. The State Attorney’s Office apologized to Hefetz for this.

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