Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s attorneys on Monday asked the court to postpone the evidentiary stage of his corruption trial by “three or four months” so it would begin only after the March 23 election.
“The case is not ready for hearing,” said attorney Boaz Ben Zur.
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The district court judges decided later Monday that the evidentiary phase of the trial will begin only after they rule on Netanyahu's claim that the attorney general did not approve in advance the investigation against the prime minister.
In addition, the judges decided to hold a preliminary hearing according to Section 144 of the Criminal Procedure Law, in which the judges attempt to obtain agreement between the defense and the prosecution on witnesses that need not be summoned to testify and and on points of fact that are not in dispute. As a result, it is likely that the proof stage will begin only after the March 23 general election.
Jack Chen, the lawyer for the former owner of Bezeq, defendant Shaul Elovitch, also asked to postpone the trial, saying he needed more time to prepare for the evidentiary stage. The lawyers asked to hold a preliminary hearing, which could lead to a delay of a few weeks.
Prosecutors Liat Ben Ari and Yehudit Tirosh opposed the request, and the head of the three-judge panel, Jerusalem District Court Judge Rivka Friedman-Feldman, expressed reservations about the postponement. But Judge Moshe Bar-Am said the defense would need at least a month for preparations for the testimony of the first witness scheduled to be called, the former CEO of the Bezeq-owned Walla website Ilan Yeshua.
Tirosh said Yeshua’s testimony could be heard within three weeks, but Ben Ari said it was possible the prosecution would ask to change the order of the witnesses, and to first hear the witnesses in Case 1000, in which Netanyahu is charged with accepting lavish gifts from billionaires.
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The session on Monday was the first hearing in which Netanyahu participated since the trial opened last May. He left the court a short time after he confirmed that he agreed with the reply to the indictment filed in his name by his lawyers, as did Shaul and Iris Elovitch and the published of Yedioth Ahronoth, Arnon Mozes.
Attorneys Ben Zur and Amit Hadad once again argued that Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit did not approve in advance the investigative actions in Netanyahu’s cases, as required by the Basic Law on the Government. “Case 1000 has no approval from the attorney general, there is approval to investigate a completely different matter,” said Ben Zur.
“In Case 4000 there are fragments of an approval, which it is impossible to construct upon the investigation conducted by the Israel Securities Authority. There is no document that says: ‘I approve opening an investigation against the prime minister on matter A. and matter B.” Hadad said the memo in which Mendelblit clarified that he approved the investigative acts “is engineering reality so it will meet the legal standards.”
Friedman-Feldman and Bar-Am made things difficult for the head prosecutor Ben Ari on the matter. “The approval in Case 4000 was given a long time after the investigation began,” said Friedman-Feldman. “You said he could give verbal approval, but we are looking at the minutes and don’t see” explicit approval,” she added. Bar-Am said that in his memo, Mendelblit referred to the minutes, but the documentation does not reflect what he said, “So what is the significance of the statement?”
Ben Ari answered that Mendelblit provided all the necessary approvals, and that his memo makes this clear. But she acknowledged that “maybe the bottom line isn’t clear enough. I agree that it is not written in the optimal way.” Tirosh added that she would have been happy to have explicit approval from Mendelblit for the investigations: “It would have saved us a lot of time. But he approved the essence.”
Ben Zur explained his request to delay the trial: “There are issues of the attorney general’s approval and other matters that have not been closed. We cannot prepare cross examinations when there are so many open issues, it is impossible.” Chen also raised arguments concerning the prosecution’s actions, saying they were being rushed.
Michal Rosen-Ozer, the lawyer representing Iris Elovitch, said the prosecution “is making things difficult for us. I don’t know how to conduct a case this way. The case needs to be conducted not as a race but like it is supposed to be conducted. Let them give us the time to prepare.”
Friedman-Feldman told the defense lawyers: “The indictment was filed a year ago. You knew months ago that this case was going to court. If it wasn’t for the coronavirus, we would have been in the process of hearing witnesses for a long time.”
Ben Ari said, “The materials have been in the hands of the defense for two years already,” and Tirosh reminded them that at the previous hearing, the defense lawyers asked for the evidentiary sessions to be held in March.
In an interview published Sunday, Knesset Speaker Yariv Levin had called for the next phase of Netanyahu’s corruption trial to be postponed to prevent “blatant election interference.” Levin told the Israel Hayom newspaper that in a democratic country, the legal system is careful to stay away from anything that might seem to be election interference, “but this basic rule has already been crudely trampled on by our legal system.”
“The legal process must not keep getting exploited to provide one-sided testimony in order to damage Netanyahu’s and Likud’s chances of winning the election,” Levin said. “A situation in which prosecution witnesses are heard before the election, while the defense witnesses – including the prime minister – are heard after the election is an unfair situation in which there is blatant and severe interference in the election process.”
During the court session, some 150 protesters carrying signs that read “the State of Israel vs. Benjamin Netanyahu” and “May The Defendant Rise” demonstrated across the street, shouting “Yalla, Bibi to jail.” Roadblocks and a large number of police officers separated the demonstrators and the court – and a handful of Netanyahu supporters who came out to demonstrate in his support.