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Netanyahu’s trial will begin hearing witnesses in January 2021

What happened: The judges in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s corruption trial ruled yesterday that the start of questioning witnesses will begin in January 2021.

  • Netanyahu, who was not in court yesterday for the procedural hearing, will be required to attend court three times to hear witnesses and their cross-examination.
  • Netanyahu’s legal team had pushed for a longer deferral period for various reasons. One of Netanyahu’s lawyers, Yossi Segev, said “it will be hard for me to face a masked witness and see if he’s telling the truth”. He added: “I came here today when I am not ready. I suggest we meet here again in six months, after the coronavirus, when we will be smarter.”
  • Within Netanyahu’s defence team there is ongoing concern over how they will be paid. Two weeks ago the State Comptroller Committee denied Netanyahu’s request to pay his lawyers with NIS 10 million in donations from wealthy friends and relatives. Several lawyers have quit Netanyahu’s legal team over the past year due to unpaid fees.
  • Segev told the three judges that he had only been retained for the day’s session because of the state’s decision not to permit Netanyahu to receive private funding for his legal expenses. Judge Rivka Friedman-Feldman replied that the case must continue to be heard and that she hoped that the defendant would find a permanent lawyer.
  • Netanyahu’s two co-defendants, publisher of Yediot Ahronot Arnon Mozes and former CEO of the telecommunications company Bezeq, Shaul Elovitch, were not required to attend yesterday’s hearing. Elovitch, who is charged in Case 4,000, decided to attend voluntarily.
  • Over the weekend, thousands of Israelis demonstrated across Israel. They raised black flags and held banners criticising the government’s handling of the coronavirus crisis. On Saturday night two larger demonstrations were held — one in Charles Clore Park in Tel Aviv and another outside the Prime Minister’s Residence on Balfour Street in Jerusalem, both of which focused on Netanyahu’s alleged corruption.
  • The number of coronavirus patients continues to rise with 1,437 new cases confirmed yesterday. There are currently 254 people in serious condition of which 70 are on ventilators, an increase of 15 since Saturday. The death toll rose by six to 409. The Health Ministry reported that there are currently 28,200 confirmed coronavirus cases in Israel. Approximately 20,500 tests were conducted yesterday.

Context: This is the first time in Israel’s 71 year history that a sitting prime minister faces a trial. Former Prime Minister Olmert resigned before being indicted by the Attorney General, but was eventually found guilty and served two-thirds of a 27-month prison sentence.

  • In “Case 1,000” Netanyahu is charged with fraud and breach of trust and is alleged to have received illegal gifts from businessman Arnon Milchan, worth up to £300,000, in return for allegedly acting in Milchan’s interest in a deal to sell an Israeli TV Channel (Channel 10) as well as allegedly helping him get a US visa, after Milchan’s was rescinded. Netanyahu is also alleged to have pursued a deal linked to Indian businessman Ratan Tata, who was Milchan’s business partner, and allegedly supported a law to extend tax breaks given to Israelis returning to live in the country after ten years (such as Milchan).
  • In “Case 2,000” Netanyahu is charged with fraud and breach of trust and is alleged to have worked on a deal with Yediot Ahronot owner Arnon “Noni” Mozes to get better media coverage by offering to restrict circulation of rival newspaper Israel Hayom, which is financed by US-based Netanyahu supporter Sheldon Adelson. The indictment said that Netanyahu and Mozes “recognised that the one had the ability to promote the other’s interest” in the run-up to the 2015 elections and discussed such possibilities. Netanyahu claims he was not serious about the agreement and never intended to implement the deal.
  • In “Case 4,000” Netanyahu is charged with bribery, fraud and breach of trust and is alleged to have promoted regulatory decisions that benefited Shaul Elovitch, the controlling shareholder in the Bezeq telecom giant, in exchange for positive coverage from the Elovitch-owned Walla news site. The indictment says the relationship between Netanyahu and Elovitch was “based on give and take,” and the Prime Minister’s actions benefiting Elovitch netted the businessman benefits to the tune of some NIS 1.8 billion ($500 million) in the period 2012-2017. In exchange, Elovitch’s Walla news site “published your political messages that you wished to convey to the public.”
  • The lead judge, Rivka Friedman-Feldman, is a Jerusalemite and graduate of the Horev religious high school, who formerly worked in the State Attorney’s Office. She was also one of the judges that sentenced former Prime Minister Olmert. The second judge, Oded Shaham, presided over the trial of Likud MK Tzahi Hanegbi (a close confidant of Netanyahu) in the political appointments affair, where he held the minority opinion that the charges should not be dropped. Hanegbi’s primary argument was the abuse of process – a defence that Netanyahu’s lawyers are also considering.

Looking ahead: Ahead of January 2021 Netanyahu’s lawyers can file motions to the court to compel the prosecution to disclose more evidence. The prosecution have until November 1 to respond.

  • Efforts to combat coronavirus are continuing. Prime Minister Netanyahu and Defence Minister Benny Gantz will today begin to discuss a plan for the new school year.
  • The cabinet is also examining the idea of imposing a lockdown at night to prevent gatherings and parties.