Netanyahu lawyers say he was never questioned on many accusations in graft cases

Lawyers for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu filed a lengthy official response Monday to the charge sheet against the premier, complaining that the corruption indictment includes “made-up” charges and refers to actions about which he was never questioned.

In a document spanning 81 pages and 667 paragraphs filed to the Jerusalem District Court, the defense team of nine lawyers argued that Netanyahu was questioned on only 10 percent of the more than 100 instances in which he allegedly sought to influence coverage of him on the Walla news site in an alleged bribery deal in Case 4000.

This, they said, “causes fundamental damage to the prime minister’s right to a fair process. How can you charge the prime minister over events he wasn’t even questioned about?”

They also claimed the investigation or elements thereof were carried out without proper authorization from the attorney general, as is required by law, an assertion the attorney general has rejected. They said police made use of specific approvals to conduct far-reaching probes using illegal measures such as tapping into private information found on phones and email accounts.

The defense team rejected all accusations of impropriety by the prime minister in his actions in the three cases against him, which involve allegedly receiving illicit gifts from billionaire benefactors, as well as accusations that he engaged in quid-pro-quo deals with media moguls to provide them benefits in exchange for positive coverage.

The document included statements that appeared to be directed more at the general public than at the judges, such as one remark that “this is what an attempt to oust a strong right-wing prime minister looks like.”

Knesset elections are scheduled for March 23.

Left: Publisher and owner of the Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper Arnon ‘Noni’ Mozes arrives for questioning at the Lahav 433 investigation unit in Lod on January 15, 2017. (Koko/Flash90) Right: Shaul Elovitch arrives at the Tel Aviv Magistrate’s Court for a remand hearing in Case 4000, February 26, 2018. (Flash90)

Netanyahu faces charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust in Case 4000, which involves suspicions that he granted regulatory favors to Shaul Elovitch, the controlling shareholder of the Bezeq telecommunications giant, in exchange for more positive coverage of the prime minister and his family from the Bezeq-owned Walla news site. Elovitch and his wife, Iris, also face bribery charges in the case.

The lawyers argued that the many calls to Walla from the prime minister’s aides and family “were mostly routine and normal spokesmanship work, such as press releases sent to many media outlets and normal and accepted requests for comment.

“State prosecutors apparently don’t know how journalism works,” the lawyers alleged.

In Case 1000, Netanyahu faces charges of fraud and breach of trust over allegation that he illicitly accepted some $200,000 in gifts such as cigars and champagne from two billionaires — Hollywood-based Israeli movie mogul Arnon Milchan and Australian magnate James Packer.

Arnon Milchan poses for photographers upon arrival at the premiere of the film ‘Widows,’ showing as part of the opening gala of the BFI London Film Festival in London, October 10, 2018. (Vianney Le Caer/ Invision/ AP)

The lawyers argued that the gifts were merely an indication of the close friendship between Netanyahu and Milchan, citing a past ruling by the attorney general that politicians are allowed to exchange gifts with friends.

In Case 2000, which also involves charges of fraud and breach of trust, Netanyahu is accused of attempting to reach a quid pro quo with the publisher of the Yedioth Ahronoth daily, Arnon Mozes, for positive media coverage in exchange for legislation weakening rival newspaper Israel Hayom, which is staunchly pro-Netanyahu.

The defense team said there was “a unanimous agreement that the prime minister didn’t receive a thing, and the argument against him is that he didn’t refuse Mozes’s offer fast enough. Israel’s lawbook doesn’t have such an offense. It’s an absurd, made-up charge that is unprecedented.”

Lawyers for the other defendants, Shaul and Iris Elovitch and Arnon Mozes, also filed their responses to the charges.

Shaul Elovitch’s defense team argued that by heeding the coverage requests regarding Netanyahu and his family, he never regarded what he was doing as giving a bribe.

“His intervention was not only aligned with his ideology and opinions — it was mainly an attempt to somewhat balance what he perceived as the website’s political agenda and the extreme, petty, and outrageous negative stance against Prime Minister Netanyahu and his family,” the lawyers wrote.

They also argued that Netanyahu’s regulatory actions that were allegedly given in return for the changes in coverage were “trivial and necessary” decisions based on recommendations by professionals. They also wrote that the indictment does not include an alleged place or time where the bribery deal was agreed upon.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (C) talks with attorneys Micha Fettman (L) and Amit Hadad (R) inside the courtroom as his corruption trial opens at the Jerusalem District Court, May 24, 2020 (Ronen Zvulun/ Pool Photo via AP)

Lawyers for Iris Elovitch said the indictment against her is based merely on her relation to her husband and on “stereotypes,” since she was absent from all the decisions featured in the charge sheet.

Lawyers for Mozes, who is accused of offering a bribe to Netanyahu, argued that it was “part of legitimate discourse with the goal of lobbying between a legislator and an interested media outlet,” which is “common in all democratic countries.”

They said the deal was not aimed at furthering the personal needs of Mozes and Netanyahu, but “a legitimate public interest” since the premier would then stop a years-long boycott of Yedioth over a 2010 story about Netanyahu’s wife, Sara.

The next court hearing in the case is set for February 8, after being rescheduled from January 13, due to the lockdown imposed to curb coronavirus infections. Netanyahu and the other defendants are required to attend the hearing, which is set to focus on the responses to the indictment.

Netanyahu’s trial opened in May. Though the prime minister attended the first hearing, he was granted an exemption from appearing at later, largely procedural stages of the trial. The February 8 hearing will be his second appearance in court.

Netanyahu, who is the first Israeli premier to be indicted while in office, denies any wrongdoing and has railed against the courts, prosecution, and media for what he terms a “witch hunt.”

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