This Monday, the evidentiary stage in the trial of Benjamin Netanyahu, Shaul Elovitch, Iris Elovitch and Arnon Mozes will begin in Jerusalem District Court. While the three co-defendants who are not prime minister will be present in court, like any criminal defendant, Netanyahu’s attorneys announced this week that they planned to ask the court to exempt Netanyahu from being present during the testimony of the first prosecution witness, Ilan Yeshua.
The request was submitted to the court, but the district court judges ruled Thursday that Netanyahu must be present in court, even if he doesn’t need to stay for the testimony. In their ruling, the judges tried to walk a fine line: They accepted the prosecution’s demand that Netanyahu be present for what is expected to be a dramatic opening statement by prosecutor Liat Ben-Ari, but still gave the prime minister a discount while adding an important discussion of the meaning of this (“So long as the petitioner understands the meaning of not being present, including not raising allegations in the future that stem from his absence”).
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From the start, one could have presumed that the prime minister’s declarations about his intention to appear in court like any criminal defendant were empty talk. Netanyahu has no intention of behaving like an ordinary citizen. He behaves like someone who assumes that he deserves special privileges. However, the growing calls for Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit to declare Netanyahu incapable of fulfilling his duties once the evidentiary phase of his trial is underway are also making Netanyahu tread carefully. The request submitted by his lawyers to exempt him from having to be present in court did not argue that he could not be there because he was too busy running the affairs of state, as such an argument could bolster the demand for him to be pronounced legally incapacitated. Instead, his lawyers argued merely that there is no direct connection between Netanyahu and Ilan Yeshua and therefore the defendant’s presence is not required during Yeshua’s testimony.
The State Prosecutor’s Office decided not to insist on Netanyahu’s presence in court throughout the weeks that Yeshua is due to testify, except for the opening day of the evidentiary hearings. The prosecution’s failure to insist on the defendant’s presence is a mistake: The public interest, particularly to what is referred to in the State Prosecutor’s Office as “the appearance of justice,” requires that the entire public see that the rules that apply to every defendant also apply to the prime minister.
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Furthermore, Netanyahu really should attend his trial. He definitely won’t be bored.
The above article is Haaretz’s lead editorial, as published in the Hebrew and English newspapers in Israel.