The trial begins. A guide to the trial of Israel’s Prime Minister

The efforts to unseat Netanyahu failed at the polls. Will they succeed in court? Three cases about gifts and media coverage. Opinion.

By Barry Shaw

When Benjamin Netanyahu appeared in the Jerusalem District Court on Sunday May 24th it made political history.

Israel has had no shortage of leaders who have been proven corrupt.

An Israeli President was sent to prison when Moshe Katzav was sentenced to seven years on rape charges.

Ehud Olmert resigned as Prime Minister to stand trial on charges of bribery and breach of trust both as mayor of Jerusalem and later as Prime Minister. He was sentenced to 27 months on fraud charges and was discharged from prison after serving just sixteen months.

Israel has an inglorious record of ministers, Knesset members, chief rabbis, mayors and other officials going to prison on criminal or security charges,

But when Benjamin Netanyahu appeared in front of the three judges it was the first time that a sitting Prime Minister has faced criminal charges.

The timing is immaculate. After a traumatic year in which three elections failed to produce a majority government, it took the political skills of Netanyahu and the conscience of opposition leader, Benny 
“There will be nothing, because there is nothing,” has been the drumbeat slogan of Bibi, as he is affectionately known.
Gantz, to cobble together an emergency unity government. Yet, even before this government has fully taken its Knesset seat, the acting Prime Minister has set out on a marathon legal journey to clear his name.

“There will be nothing, because there is nothing,” has been the drumbeat slogan of Bibi, as he is affectionately known.

Throughout the agonizing process of investigations by the police, acting on the orders of the State Attorney-General, Netanyahu has protested that there has been political dirty business going on aided and abetted by a compliant media. He proclaimed that the only way the opposition can get rid of him was by staging a coup using the courts as a way to removed him from power.

This may sound familiar to American readers.

Netanyahu’s lawyers have lodged over a hundred complaints of leaks to the media and prosecution witnesses talking to reporters.

Leaving aside protests, let’s look into the charges ranged against him.

Benjamin Netanyahu faces three different set of charges, but all are related by the general charge against him of bribery and breach of trust.

The most serious case concerns Case 4000. This is the case in which Bibi is charged with a media bribery scheme with the owners of Bezek and Walla communications and media companies. In this case, the owners, Shaul Elovitch and his wife, Iris, are also co-defenders with a separate legal team.

The charges claim that Walla gave Bibi favorable coverage in exchange for him making government policies favoring Elovitch’s Bezek company to the value of around 1.8 billion shekels.

Bibi has protested that issues relating to the communications industry rest with the ministry concerned and that several decisions had gone against Bezek. The prosecution, however, will be producing as supporting evidence large amounts of letters, email exchanges, text messages and an array of witnesses, including a couple of significant people who have turned state witnesses in return for immunity against the prime minister.

Watch out for the appearances of Nir Hefetz and Shlomo Filber, two former aides to the prime minister. Hefetz will accuse Bibi of micromanaging the Walla news coverage. His court appearance is important and may take several days with the prosecution attempting to substantiate his verbal evidence with an array of documents. To counter this, the lawyers of Netanyahu and of the Elovitchs may take even longer when they cross-examine Hefetz.

There have been reports that the prosecution, via the police investigation team, used excessive methods to break Hefetz in order to get him to turn against his former boss.

Shades of FBI and Michael Flynn, Roger Stone, George Papadopoulos, Paul Manafort.

Shlomo Filber may be a tougher nut to crack. He will make the case that Bibi hatched the scheme to grant favors to Shaul Elovitch via government policies and he is expected to back up his evidence with documents.

The prosecution could also call Walla management personnel to give evidence against the prime minister. This is a touchy issue because a dozen Walla reporters have protested interference in their reporting of the prime minister.

Netanyahu’s defense will give evidence of the many negative news stories against their client to prove there was no pro-Bibi dominance in Walla reporting. He will also protest that any communications policies that favored Elovitch were approved by named neutral bureaucrats.

It has been reported that parts of Bibi’s defense arguments in Case 4000 are solid. The outcome may rest on how successfully his lawyers can offset the appearance of Shlomo Filber.

Case 1000 concerns gifts that Bibi and his wife received over the years from wealthy friends. Questions have arisen regarding whether these were only friends, or patrons looking for favors. Certainly the reports of crates of pink champagne and boxes of expensive cigars to the Netanyahus, and rumors of Sara Netanyahu’s demands for clothes to meet her self-given status as Israel’s first lady, have had a grating effect on some of the Israeli public, but they are reports and rumors. It may prove difficult to establish any quid pro quo in the Netanyahu dealings with Sheldon and Miriam Adelson, Australian billionaire, James Packer, or Israeli Hollywood mogul, Arnon Milchan.

More complicated for Bibi is Case 2000. This involves his relationship with Yediot newspaper owner, Noni Moses. Bibi is charged with reducing the influence of the pro-Netanyahu Israel HaYom free newspaper, owned by his former friend, Sheldon Adelson, in favor of Yediot. The expected evidence of Sheldon Adelson will be interesting.

In the Case 2000, Bibi is on stronger ground. Moses is not going to testify against himself and Attorney-General has already reduced the charges against Bibi from bribery down to breach of trust. It is also a case without precedents.

The three cases will produce a procession of star witnesses including former Mossad head, Tamir Pardo, no political friend of Bibi, former Shin Bet head, Yuval Diskin, former national security adviser, Uzi Arad, leader of the Opposition, Yair Lapid, a Bibi detester. Others may include Tzipi Livni, Labour’s Eitan Cabel. Witnesses for Bibi will be Gilad Erdan, before he takes up his posts in New York and Washington, Ron Dermer, until recently Ambassador to the US, new Knesset Speaker, Yariv Levin, Ze’ev Elkin and Tzachi Hanegbi.

The initial Sunday hearing will mostly cover technical issues concerning documents that the defense has requested from the court.

The trial is likely to drag on until late 2021 and possibly as late as mid-2023. If Bibi is sentenced this is probably not going to be before early 2022 and could be as late as the end of 2024.

Barry Shaw, Israel Institute for Strategic Studies. He blogs at The View from Israel.

May 27, 2020 | 5 Comments » | 394 views

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5 Comments / 5 Comments

  1. The A.G., the entire Israeli justice system including the police service have not learned a single lesson from the absurd vendetta the Democrats and blind members of the security services pursed against President Trump for years. During his entire first 3 years in Office they have used every dishonest, guttersnipe trick they could imagine to get him removed as President and all they achieved during that time was to make themselves look loathsome and unworthy of Office. This vendetta carried out by the Israeli justice apparatus against Bibi is doing exactly same thing to Israel. It is bringing the country into disrupt and when this childish show is done, I hope there is a serious reckoning day ahead for the shysters running Israel’s justice system — it is badly in need of very serious reform because it has shown itself be not fit for purpose on many occasions.

  2. I think that perhaps Israel should adopt a “Norwegian law” that is very different from the political patronage law that is currently being discussed. That is the adoption of the Norwegian criminal justice system. In Norway, criminal cases a tried by a panel of three full-time “professional judges” and three “citizen assessors,” who must have no formal legal traing before they are appointed to one-year terms. They are then given a six-month course in the basics of criminal law before beginning their terms of service. Each witness is allowed to make a five minute opening statement in which they can say anything they think is relavant to the case. They are then questioned by each of the four judges. The lawyers for the prosecution and defense only do their questioning afterwards.

    The defendant is not required to take the stand, although he can if he wishes to. He also is allowed to comment after each witness concludes his/her testimony, and give his version of the events described by the witness.

    A three to two vote is required for conviction. If both professional judges disagee with the verdict reached by all three citizen assessors, there is an automatic right of appeal.

    The prosecutors and the defense lawyrs have the same right to present opening and closing arguments as in other legal systems. The defendant can also make an opening statement (fifteen minute limit) if he chooses.

    In addition to pleading “guilty” or “not guilty,” the defendant can plead something called “need,” meaning that his actions were necessary to save lives or protect innocent people, even if technically illegal.

    I saw the trial of extreme right wing terrorist Anders Behring Breivik broadcast live on a Norwegian television station, with simultaneous translation into English. The trial struck me as extremely fair and balanced, and well suited to bring out all the facts of the case in public.

    Some modifications in this system would need to by made to adapt it to Israeli political-military realities. But I think it was slightly modified to insure that the citizen assessors were unbiased, it would insure a fair trial for everyone, including alleged “settler” terrorists.

  3. Ted, please detrash my comment about the Norwegian justice system, and how with some modificiations it might help to reform Israel present criminal justice system to insure a fair trial for everyone. I think that Israpundits readers would find it of interest. I would also like to see their feedback, and possibly yours, about my proposal.

  4. @ Adam Dalgliesh:

    Adam this sounds (maybe only to me) a bit complicated the way you describe it; for instance you mention 3 judges and few lines later you mention 4 judges- I may have misundertood but it’s easy to do here..

    How could we get an unbiased assessor-or indeed anyone unbiased- in Israel-of ALL places–?? The slight modification you mention would have to be a 25 year sentence without parole-

    One thing I AM surprised at is that Breivik made it to his trial safe and sound; I’d rather expect him to have been found dead in his cell with no suspects –

  5. In Case 4000 it has been reported that,

    Officials involved in the investigation of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the Bezeq corruption probe said Friday he will be hard-pressed to explain away the “concrete” suspicions and “solid” evidence against him, Hadashot TV news reported.

    Officials also told Hadashot that suspicions against Netanyahu in the investigation, known as Case 4000, are more serious than those ascribed to him in previous cases 1000 and 2000 — in both of which police have recommended he be indicted for fraud, breach of trust and bribery.

    Police investigators believe the evidence they have, including testimonies, physical evidence and audio tapes, directly ties Netanyahu and his wife to the alleged crimes, according to Hadashot.

    One unnamed source told the TV station the case has “a very clear bottom line,” and that investigators do not see a way for Netanyahu to explain the evidence gathered against him.

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