Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu pleaded not guilty as he appeared Monday at the Jerusalem District Court to respond to the corruption charges against him.
Netanyahu, who is charged with bribery, fraud and breach of trust in three cases, confirmed the written answer his defense team submitted to the court on his behalf in January, arguing he was not guilty in all the charges against him.
“The case is not ready for hearing,” said Ben Zur.
The district court judges decided 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 on points of fact that are not in dispute. As a result, it is likely that the proof stage will begin only after the election.
Defense 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, with Ben Zur claiming that “Case 1000 has no approval from the attorney general," and that for Case 4000, “there are fragments of an approval, which is impossible to construct upon the investigation conducted by the Israel Securities Authority"
Hadad said the memo in which Mendelblit clarified that he approved the investigative acts “is engineering reality so it will meet the legal standards.”
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Judge Rivka Friedman-Feldman and Judge Moshe Bar-Am slammed chief state prosecutor Liat Ben Ari for not obtaining "explicit approval" from the attorney general.
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Ben Ari answered that Mendelblit provided all the necessary approvals, and that his memo makes this clear. But she acknowledged that “is not written in the optimal way.” Prosecutor Yehudit Tirosh added that explicit approval from Mendelblit "would have saved us a lot of time. But he approved the essence.”
Ben Zur based his request to delay the trial partially on the "issues of the attorney general’s approval and other matters that have not been closed.” Jack Chen, the lawyer for the former owner of Bezeq, defendant Shaul Elovitch, also asked to postpone the trial.
Ben Ari and Tirosh opposed the request, and the head of the three-judge panel, as well as Friedman-Feldman, expressed reservations about the postponement.
But 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.
A detailed response to the indictment has been submitted to the judges in which the defense attorneys presented the main line of defense for all the defendants who are standing trial alongside Netanyahu – Arnon (Noni) Mozes, publisher of Yedioth Ahronoth, as well as Iris and Shaul Elovitch, former controlling stockholders of Bezeq and its news site Walla.
By decision of the judges, Netanyahu had to attend the hearing. Uri Corb, who prosecuted the corruption cases of former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, recently joined Netanyahu’s defense team.
Friedman-Feldman later told the prime minister that he does not have to attend the rest of the hearing. Shortly after, Netanyahu left the court.
The next stage of the prime minister's trial will set precise dates for the evidentiary hearings and for hearing witnesses. As a rule, the judges attempt to reach agreements between the prosecution and the defendants regarding witnesses, who do not have to be summoned and whose testimony is unnecessary, and over additional facts and evidence on which there is agreement between the sides and therefore no need to discuss them. This step is designed to streamline the process and save time, and according to law it can be carried out at any stage of the process.
There has been increased tension between the State Prosecutor’s Office and the prime minister’s defense attorneys, after Deputy State Prosecutor Liat Ben Ari sent a letter to Ben Zur. The letter warned him not to speak to witnesses in the trial.
As Netanyahu arrived at court, some 150 protesters carrying signs that read "the State of Israel vs. Benjamin Netanyahu" and "May The Defendant Rise" demonstrated across the street.
Defense Minister Benny Gantz, who also serves as acting justice minister, said in a statement: “It is a difficult and sad day, but also an important one in which every person understands that no one is immune from the law. Everyone is equal before the law. Even if you are the prime minister."
“For months the legal system has been under unprecedented attack. The ruling party has been trying to impair the judicial branch through legislation, and today also by incitement in the media and personal threats against officials. This is a threat to Israeli democracy. We are fighting against this, every day,” Gantz said.