Prosecution says PM should appear in court, pushing back against defense request

Prosecutors told the Jerusalem District Court on Thursday that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu should attend the court hearings beginning next week in his corruption trial.

“The prosecution believes that there is a real reason for the defendant’s presence in the opening speech, which is the opening status of the entire prosecution case, both in terms of the defendant hearing the proceedings directly, and in terms of the perception of justice,” they said in a statement, noting that the decision was at the discretion of the court.

Netanyahu’s attorneys clarified that the prime minister plans to be in court on Monday, but does not believe it necessary for him to be present for the testimony of the first witness, Ilan Yeshua, who is part of so-called Case 4000.

Netanyahu’s faces charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust in that case, which involves suspicions that he granted regulatory favors benefiting Shaul Elovitch, the controlling shareholder of Bezeq telecoms, in exchange for positive coverage of the prime minister and his family from the Bezeq-owned Walla news site. The Elovitches also face bribery charges in the case.

Yeshua was CEO of Walla at the time of the alleged crimes in Case 4000, but Netanyahu’s attorneys argue that since the two had no direct contact, the premier’s presence in the courtroom is unnecessary. Yeshua’s testimony, Netanyahu’s lawyers claim, is relevant only to the other defendants in the trial.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu prior to a hearing in his corruption trial at the Jerusalem District Court, Feb. 8, 2021. (AP Photo/Reuven Castro, Pool)

Netanyahu’s legal team had initially asked the court Wednesday to waive the requirement that he be present in the courtroom for the proceedings.

The evidentiary phase of Netanyahu’s trial for alleged bribery, fraud and breach of trust begins on Monday, with hearings scheduled to be held three times a week, Monday through Wednesday, from 9 a.m. until 3:30 p.m.

The intensive legal proceedings coincide with President Reuven Rivlin’s meetings Monday with representatives of all political parties to hear their nominations of the next prime minister, following last week’s inconclusive election.

Netanyahu, who seeks to establish the next government and continue serving as prime minister after four rounds of voting in two years, was reportedly seeking to avoid fresh photos from the defendant’s bench as he tries to muster political support to head a coalition.

The Kan public broadcaster noted that Netanyahu’s lawyers have ruled out arguing that a prime minister’s time is precious and that spending a significant number of hours in court every week would impede his ability to perform his duties. This is to avoid emboldening the claims of Netanyahu’s political rivals, who argue that he cannot run the country properly while he is on trial.

Netanyahu’s trial involves three separate cases: Case 1000, Case 2000, along with Case 4000.

Israeli businessman Shaul Elovitch and his wife Iris arrive at the District Court in Jerusalem for a court hearing on February 8, 2021. (Reuven Kastro/POOL)

Netanyahu also faces charges of fraud and breach of trust in Case 1000 and in Case 2000. The former involves suspicions Netanyahu illicitly accepted some $200,000 in gifts such as cigars and champagne from two billionaires — Hollywood-based Israeli movie mogul Arnon Milchan and Australian magnate James Packer.

In Case 2000, Netanyahu is accused of attempting to reach a quid pro quo with Yedioth Ahronoth publisher Arnon Mozes for positive media coverage in exchange for legislation weakening rival newspaper Israel Hayom. Mozes was charged with bribery in the case.

Netanyahu, who is the first Israeli premier to be indicted while in office, denies any wrongdoing and has railed against the courts, prosecution and media for what he terms a “witch hunt.” He alleges the state prosecution, police, media and opposition are framing him in an attempted political coup.

He has appeared in court twice so far.

In February, under heavy security and after several delays due to the coronavirus lockdown, Netanyahu made a brief, mandatory appearance at the Jerusalem District Court for a hearing at which he formally pleaded not guilty to the three charges against him.

The premier’s lawyers have repeatedly moved to delay and discredit the proceedings, filing complaints against the prosecution, alleging “criminal tactics” had been used against them, calling for changing the indictment against the prime minister, and claiming that police investigators had used illegitimate means to secure evidence, thus rendering the charges moot.

Meanwhile, the Justice Ministry is set to be left without a justice minister as of midnight Thursday with Netanyahu preventing a permanent appointment to the post.

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