Netanyahu trial kicks off as PM avoids bad optics, defense asks for more time

Netanyahu is charged with bribery, fraud, and breach of public trust. He maintains his innocence on all the charges.

By Lauren Marcus, World Israel News

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s trial began Sunday, marking the first time in Israeli history that an Israeli leader faces criminal charges while in office.

Netanyahu is charged with bribery, fraud, and breach of public trust. He maintains his innocence on all the charges.

Netanyahu filed a motion last week asking the court to allow him to skip the arraignment hearing. The request was denied and Netanyahu’s lawyers attributed the decision to the prosecution’s desire to “present an image of Prime Minister Netanyahu sitting on the defendants’ bench, as a continuation of the ‘anyone-but-Bibi’ campaign.”

Netanyahu, conscious of the bad optics of sitting on the defendant’s bench, actually waited until all the cameras left the room before sitting down.

A large group of Likud lawmakers, including ministers Miri Regev and Amir Ohana, and MKs Nir Barkat and Tzachi Hanegbi, accompanied him for moral support.

The other defendants in the case, Yediot Ahronot publisher Noni Moses, as well as Bezeq’s controlling shareholder, Shaul Elovitch and his wife Iris, also appeared in court on Sunday.

Hundreds of protesters gathered outside of the courthouse in support of the prime minister, waving Israeli flags and chanting, “Your honors, Netanyahu is not alone” and “They framed him.” Some held signs comparing the trial to the Dreyfus Affair, in which a French-Jewish captain was falsely accused of treason in the late 1800s.

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Itzik Zarka, a Netanyahu supporter and one of the protest’s organizers, said to Israel Hayom, “We came to give our prime minister strength. We are very angry and are also a part of this trial because these are indictments that the Left built up to topple the government and take our democracy.”

The arraignment went largely according to standard procedure. Head Judge Rivka Feldman-Friedman asked each defendant’s attorney if they read and understood the charges against them, and then the defendants each individually confirming that they did.

The prosecution and defense attorneys agreed that for the majority of the trial, the defendants will only have to appear in court for significant events like testifying and cross-examination. Netanyahu’s attorney emphasized the importance of “keeping the media circus to a minimum” and the court accepted the request. The next hearing in the trial, scheduled for July 19th, will be attended only by attorneys.

All of the defense attorneys asked the court for an extension, saying they needed more time to prepare for the trial. “We received enormous quantities of video and audio recordings,” said Netanyahu’s attorney, Micah Patman.

“We all know that omitting a word can make the difference between conviction and innocence. We have hundreds of hours of work ahead of us.”

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Lead prosecutor Liat Ben Ari objected, saying, “Had we started today I would have said they need three to four months [for the defense to prepare], but this case was not born today. On February 28, 2019, the attorney general decided to file an indictment pending the hearing. Since then, a year and four months have passed.”

Shaul Elovitch’s defense attorney Jack Chen said, “Due process means providing enough tools for the defendants to defend themselves. This is part of the public interest that Liat herself should uphold.”

Israeli Channel 12 News reported that while no decision was made in court, it’s likely that the judges will grant the defense an additional six to eight months to prepare.

Another key issue raised by defense attorneys included the appearance of prominent witnesses in a TV episode of The Source, which aired last Thursday.

“We ask that the trial be conducted through this court,” said defense attorney Chen. “Certainly the court should not allow witnesses to testify outside the bounds of the courtroom, with other witnesses interviewing and referring to the versions presented by other witnesses.”

Prosecutor Ben-Ari agreed, saying, “We will of course remind the prosecution witnesses that they must not speak or be interviewed by anyone, and I sincerely hope that these things will not happen again.”

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Last week, immediately after the trailer for the episode of The Source, featuring the witnesses aired, Chen sent a letter to Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit asking for him to prevent the program from being broadcast.

The Source program has appointed itself to run the real trial and decide the law – under the pretense, unlike the court, that it will be run without ‘mediators’, ‘censors’, and ‘distortions’, and the judges are the general public,” Chen wrote in the letter, sent last Wednesday.

“This is a violation of the dignity of the court and a serious and grave violation of the defendants’ right to due process,” he wrote.

The state attorney’s office responded that they had no grounds to prevent the program from being broadcast.