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Taking defendant’s bench, Netanyahu becomes first Israeli PM to stand trial

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu entered Courtroom 317 of the Jerusalem District Court on Sunday to become the first serving Israeli premier to stand trial, sitting on the defendant’s bench and answering “yes” to confirm he had read the corruption charges in the three cases against him.

The prime minister will be allowed to skip the next hearing, which will take place on July 19, with the judges saying he would not have to return to court until the evidence stage.

After delivering a scathing speech outside the court, in which he assailed law enforcement and alleged an “attempted political coup” against him, Netanyahu walked into the courtroom for the opening of his trial, refusing to take his seat on the bench until the press had been ushered out of the room.

The other defendants in the three cases were also in attendance: Arnon Mozes, publisher of the Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper; Shaul Elovitch, controlling shareholder of the Bezeq telecommunications company; and Elovitch’s wife, Iris Elovitch.

Netanyahu, who denies wrongdoing, faces charges of fraud and breach of trust in all the cases, as well as bribery in one of them.

In the bribery case, Netanyahu is accused of pushing regulatory favors for Elovitch’s benefit in exchange for positive media coverage. He is also accused of attempting to reach a quid pro quo with Mozes for positive media coverage and of taking expensive gifts from wealthy benefactors in the two other cases, which are considered less serious.

Judges Rebecca Friedman-Feldman, Moshe Bar-Am and Oded Shaham opened the trial, as the dozens of reporters covering the hearing were placed in rooms throughout the building where the proceedings were livestreamed on TVs, in line with coronavirus social distancing rules.

As various attorneys addressed the court, Netanyahu sat on the defendant’s bench, his facial expression not visible thanks to the blue face mask he was wearing. His back was to the only camera in the courtroom, located in the rear.

Netanyahu, Mozes, and Shaul and Iris Elovitch each stood in turn to confirm that they understood the charges against them.

Netanyahu responded with a simple “yes,” after his attorney Micha Fetman stated that his client had read the indictment. Fetman then told the judges that he needed additional time — roughly two or three months — to go over the case, as the exact makeup of the defense team in the various cases had yet to be finalized.

The Permits Committee at the State Comptroller’s Office has thrice rejected Netanyahu’s request to accept donations from wealthy benefactors for his legal expenses and instructed him to return funds he had already received. But in February the committee — with a different makeup — said it would once again consider allowing the premier to receive outside funding for his legal expenses, which would likely bring about changes in the makeup of his defense team.

Shaul Elovitch’s attorney Zach Hen argued during the hearing that recent interviews given by the prosecution’s major witnesses to the media were unacceptable and asked the judges to outlaw such interviews going forward.

Iris Elovich’s attorney Michal Rosen-Ozer similarly said that the prosecution had been given more time with the evidence against her client than she had been given, and that she needed more time to prepare before moving forward with the trial.

Deputy state attorney Liat Ben-Ari dismissed the defense’s request for three to four months to go over the evidence before moving forward with the trial.

“Had we started today I would have said we need 3-4 months [to study the materials], 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,” Ben Ari said.

At the end of the session, Ben Ari said she didn’t have an issue with the defendants not being present at the next session on preliminary requests. Before concluding the session, Judge Friedman-Feldman said the court would notify the sides regarding the date of the next hearing.

As the trial unfolded, music blared from a pro-Netanyahu rally taking place right outside the courthouse, with hundreds sticking it out for the entire hearing.

Hundreds of demonstrators had gathered at two opposing protests before and during the opening of the trial.

Pro-Netanyahu demonstrators protested against the judicial system that brought him to the defendant’s bench, with placards reading “Dreyfus Trial: Mandelblit Style” and “Resign, Mandelblit,” in reference to Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit, who filed the indictments against Netanyahu, and comparing the case to the anti-Semitic show trial that rocked France at the turn of the 20th century.

Some wore white shirts with the word “Mandelgate,” in reference to the attorney general’s role in the so-called Harpaz affair, a 2010 scandal, in which he was investigated but never tried. There has been growing attacks from Likud on Mandelblit, with one minister last week calling him an “alleged criminal.”

Outside the Prime Minister’s Residence on Balfour Street, anti-Netanyahu protesters called for him to resign in light of the criminal allegations being presented in court. The so-called Black Flag protesters decried attacks on the justice system by Netanyahu and his supporters.

Earlier, Netanyahu gave a fiery speech as he arrived outside the court.

“The people recognize… that this is an attempt at a political coup, against the will of the people,” he told reporters, echoing frequent accusations he has made over the past year against the law enforcement system. “I want to reassure you all, with your help, and with God’s help, I’ll continue to fight; I won’t let them bring us down.”

“I stand here with straight back and head held high,” he said. “I’ll continue to lead the State of Israel.”

“For more than a decade the left has failed to do this at the ballot box,” Netanyahu said. “In recent years they have found a new trick — police and prosecutors have joined the ‘Anyone but Bibi’ gang to drum up these delusional and fabricated cases, this delusional trial. They aim to to bring down a strong prime minister from the right and to keep the right away from power for many years.”

The investigations “were polluted and fabricated from the start… so no surprise that an absurd indictment was ultimately filed,” he charged.

Closing his address with a word of thanks to his supporters, including those who were protesting outside the court, Netanyahu said, “Your incredible support warms my heart. I know that the people of Israel are behind me.”

Standing behind the prime minister as he spoke were several Likud MKs and ministers, all wearing face masks, including Amir Ohana, Israel Katz, Miri Regev, Yoav Gallant, Tzachi Hanegbi and David Amsalem.

Earlier, opposition leader Yair Lapid tore into the Likud lawmakers who had announced they planned to join Netanyahu, calling it a “national disgrace” and noting that Ohana, as public security minister, oversees law enforcement agencies.

“This is the true coup attempt,” Lapid, who heads the Yesh Atid party, wrote on Twitter, alluding to accusations by Netanyahu and his backers that his indictment last year amounted to an “attempted coup.”

Header: Supporters of Netanyahu stand outside the Jerusalem District Court © MENAHEM KAHANA / AFP