Netanyahu in court: First time prime minister sits in defendant’s chair

Netanyahu’s allies say that the legal system and the media have it in for him.

By David Isaac, World Israel News

The investigation that began 3 1/2 years ago has finally reached the trial stage. Benjamin Netanyahu will face court on charges of fraud, breach of trust and bribery on Sunday afternoon. It’s a first in Israeli history: A sitting prime minister who is also facing criminal charges.

The case begins at 3:00 p.m. Israel time. The opening day is largely technical in nature and expected only to last 1/2 hour. The defendants, including Netanyahu, will be asked if he has read and understands the charges against them. They don’t have to enter a plea.

Then a timetable will be set between the prosecutors and the defense attorneys for the trial to move forward. The prosecution hopes for an intensive schedule of three-to-four meetings a week, but Netanyahu’s lawyers want to thin that out to once a week, Israel Hayom reports on Sunday.

A three-judge panel will hear the case: Rivka Friedman-Feldman, who will serve as lead judge, Moshe Baram, and Oded Shoham.

The lead prosecutor at the trial will be Liat Ben-Ari. She has been one of the chief proponents of charging Netanyahu. Ben-Ari also heads the taxation and economic crimes division of the state prosecution’s Tel Aviv district.

Netanyahu had requested to skip the opening day of trial. He said he understood the charges against him and coming to trial would cause unnecessary expense and limit the number of attorneys able to enter the room. The State Attorney’s Office rejected his request early last week.

Netanyahu’s allies say that the legal system and the media have it in for Netanyahu and want him to appear in court because the optics will hurt him in the eyes of the public.

Education Minister Yoav Galant said on social media and in interviews that the media have been conducting a a “field trial” against Netanyahu, a trial he says has been going on for years.

Speaker of the Knesset Yariv Levin said on Twitter on Sunday, “The day of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s trial will be remembered as one of the low points of the Israeli legal system.”

Several key ministers and Likud MKs will join Netanyahu at court in a show of moral support.

Three cases

The prime minister is accused of fraud and breach of trust in three cases and bribery in one – Case 4000. That case has been the focus of most of the media coverage since it’s considered the most serious given that bribery is the central charge. Fraud and breach of trust in the other cases are considered lesser charges.

The other reason is the amount of money involved. The prosecution says that the favors Netanyahu provided amounted to at least 1.8 billion shekels.

In Case 4000, Netanyahu is accused of using his position to help a wealthy telecom magnate Shaul Elovitch, also a defendant, in exchange for favorable coverage on a popular news site owned by Elovitch. Elovitch’s wife Iris is also on trial.

However, Israel Hayom reports the prosecution first wants the trial to focus on Case 1000, then 2000 and only at the end 4000.

In Case 1000, Netanyahu is accused of accepting bribes in the forms of gifts of champagne and cigars from wealthy friends to the tune of 690,000 shekels. In return, he used his influence to grant political favors.

The prosecution wants that case tried first, says the paper, because it is the most clear-cut and in the prosecution’s view will influence the outcome of the other cases.

In Case 2000, Netanyahu is accused of advancing legislation to hobble Israel Hayom, a paper friendly toward his policies, in exchange for favorable coverage in a paper largely unfriendly, Yediot Ahronot, led by publisher and editor Arnon “Noni” Mozes, who wanted the competitor paper weakened. Mozes is also a defendant in the trial.