Ex-state attorney: Judges in PM’s trial made ‘unprecedented error’ in bribery comments

Former state attorney Moshe Lador has assailed the conduct of judges in the trial of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu after they advised the prosecution and the defense behind closed doors that with most of the prosecution’s witnesses heard, they believe the bribery charge against the prime minister in one of the cases against him will be hard to substantiate.

The judges’ comments earlier this month immediately leaked, and this week they confirmed making them. Prosecutors have remained steadfast in their belief that they have a strong case on the bribery charge against the premier. (The accusation is the most serious against Netanyahu, but is only one of the multiple charges he faces in the three corruption cases that make up his trial.)

The revelation caused public controversy, with supporters of the prime minister arguing it was proof of the cases against him being false and nearing collapse, while critics stressed the comments had no bearing on the other serious charges he faced.

Lador, speaking at a Beersheba event on culture and politics, said the judges’ privately-made statements were “an unprecedented error by the court” and “a hit job.”

“Such a difficulty [with proving the bribery charge] could be raised in discussions after the prosecution’s case was done, when [all] witnesses had been heard… The judges did not afford the prosecution this opportunity, and did it when the prosecution’s case was far from over,” he argued. “The judges have at best heard from a random slate of witnesses that have provided them with a temporary image. They have not yet seen the full picture. They know that the entire [justice] system stands behind the bribery charge.”

Netanyahu is accused of bribery in Case 4000, also known as the Bezeq-Walla case. It focuses on allegations that while serving as communications minister in 2014-2017, Netanyahu authorized regulatory decisions that financially benefited Bezeq telecommunications giant shareholder Shaul Elovitch to the tune of hundreds of millions of shekels. In return, Netanyahu allegedly received influence on media coverage in the Walla news site owned by Elovitch.

Judges take their seats at the Jerusalem District Court judges to listen to the testimony of businessman Arnon Milchan in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s corruption trial on June 25, 2023. (Oren Ben Hakoon/Pool)

“What were the judges thinking?” Lador said. “They claimed it was a closed-door discussion, as though it would not reach Netanyahu and his associates in minutes… It was a wonderful opportunity for them to say ‘There, the case is collapsing.’ It was a real hit job. That’s not how you manage a case, certainly not in such an affair that is being watched by the entire country.”

Lador added he does not believe it is possible that Netanyahu will be cleared of bribery in the case. “I never say in any case that I know what the judges will rule. I’m not a prophet, but knowing the materials in front of them, there is no legal means to exonerate Netanyahu. it’s not possible.”

He said the judges’ comments were “entirely unnecessary” and “utterly damaging” as they would take hold in the public as an informal ruling in the case.

The judges were also reported to have told attorneys during their meeting that it would be “for the good of the country” if the trial ended soon, in interpreted comments as pushing the sides to seek a plea deal.

Lador said the justices “shouldn’t be concerning themselves with the question of the good of the country. They shouldn’t be taking it into account at all. They mustn’t.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu seen at the Jerusalem District Court arriving to listen to testimony by businessman Arnon Milchan, as part of Netanyahu’s corruption trial, June 28, 2023. (Marc Israel Sellem/Pool)

In fact, the judges should not be seeking a plea deal that could leave the question of Netanyahu’s guilt unresolved, he said. “They should say the opposite — say that a legal verdict is necessary in this case. The public has been dealing with this for years, claims have been made against the entire enforcement system, police, investigators, prosecutors, the attorney general and the courts. Claims that the case was a stitch-up, that it was an attempt to push out a serving prime minister, that it was a wrongful use of the system’s powers. They are destroying public trust in the system at prime time.”

For this reason, he argued, “there must be a verdict” on the allegation.

Lador also criticized the judges for stretching out the trial, saying “such a case should be concluded within seven months, not seven years. Maybe they don’t want this task, the role and challenge of ruling on a controversy that is tearing the public in two.”

Attorney Jack Chen, who represents Shaul Elovitch in the trial, called Lador’s comments “sameful” and “ignorant.”

“The prosecution’s case in Case 4000 is nearly over, with most witnesses having testified, among them all key witnesses and state witnesses. The prosecution has said so. Only a few minor witnesses remain who will give variations on the same theme,” he said.

Chen called Lador’s statements “demagoguery by another person in hysterics over the years of lies and brainwashing collapsing before his eyes.”

Israeli businessman Shaul Elovitch arrives for a hearing in the trial against former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the District Court in Jerusalem, May 2, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

On Thursday, the judges issued a document in which they noted that at the last week’s meeting, “the sides were informed of the panel’s position according to which there are difficulties in establishing the bribery offense in the first charge of the indictment.”

“Based on these difficulties, it was suggested that the state was considering retracting the bribery charge,” the judges said, while noting they stressed “that these comments were being made with the necessary caution.”

The judges noted that the state’s representative pushed back against their suggestion, saying “the state sees things differently” and noting that “the court has so far been presented with only a partial picture.”

Following the leak of the judges meeting with the attorneys, the prosecutors have asked that all interactions between the bench and legal parties henceforth be recorded.

The prosecutors filed their request on Sunday with the Jerusalem District Court, also asking expedite Netanyahu’s long-running graft trial by adding hearing days next month.

Netanyahu is also on trial for fraud and breach of trust in Case 4000, charges the judges did not comment on. And he faces two additional counts of fraud and breach of trust — in Case 1000, which concerns gifts he allegedly received inappropriately from billionaire benefactors, and in Case 2000, in which he allegedly negotiated to obtain positive media coverage in a newspaper in exchange for curtailing its competitors.

The trial began in May 2020, and is predicted to stretch on for several more years unless a plea bargain can be reached.

Netanyahu denies any wrongdoing in the cases against him and claims that the charges were fabricated in a witch hunt led by the police and state prosecutors.

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