TEL AVIV – Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s trial, which was slated to begin Monday, has been pushed off by more than two months due to an order for all court activity to be limited to a “state of extraordinary emergency” as part of sweeping new restrictions imposed by Israel in a bid to combat the coronavirus.
“In light of the developments regarding the coronavirus outbreak, and taking into consideration the latest guidelines given and the declaration of a state of emergency in the courts, we have decided to cancel [Monday’s] scheduled hearing,” the three Jerusalem District Court judges presiding over the prime minister’s case said in a statement Sunday.
May 24 was announced as the new date for the hearing in the three corruption cases facing Netanyahu.
Netanyahu has denied all wrongdoing in charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust.
All court sessions will be postponed, with the exception of arrest and remand hearings, those in the High Court of Justice, and hearings relating to arrests under the new emergency regulation legislation.
Overnight, Justice Minister Amir Ohana ordered the court system to shift into emergency status since they present “real harm to public health.” The measure had a 24-hour expiration date but is expected to be extended.
Ohana, who is a close ally of the prime minister, was criticized over the move.
The Movement for Quality Government, a group founded in 1990 amid a coalition crisis, filed a petition Sunday calling on Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit to block Ohana’s order and begin Netanyahu’s trial as scheduled.
“Minister Ohana is an interim minister in an interim government that has never gotten the confidence of the public,” the group wrote in its petition.
It also requested Mandelblit reverse the new emergency regulations announced by Netanyahu on Saturday night, claiming they constituted a “serious, unconstitutional violation of human rights [that] were never approved by the Knesset.”
Netanyahu announced that Israel would begin using digital tracking tools, relying on cellphone data, to track carriers of the coronavirus.
He also said that all recreational businesses, such as movie theaters and malls, would be shuttered. Gatherings of more than 10 people in the same place would be barred. Israel has also closed all kindergartens, pre-schools, schools and universities until further notice.
200 Israelis have been confirmed to have contracted the virus, although there have been no deaths so far. Two are in serious condition.
Netanyahu said Taiwan, which also has 200 confirmed cases of the virus, has also employed the use of cellphone data to track the spread of the virus.
However, unlike Taiwan, the GPS data that Israel will use will not be used to determine whether those under quarantine are indeed staying in their homes as ordered, the Shin Bet security agency said Sunday.
Rather, the data will track the past movements of confirmed COVID-19 cases.
“As part of the legal consideration, it was decided to put a variety of restrictions on the measures that would be used, mostly in terms of the duration of their operation, the legal oversight of their operation, and the use of the information that is collected,” Mandelblit said.
Nevertheless, Netanyahu was slammed over the move.
The head of the left-wing Meretz party, Nitzan Horowitz, described it as “a harsh blow to privacy and basic freedoms” that should never be allowed in a democratic country.
The Blue and White party’s Moshe Ya’alon MK, who also served as Israel’s defense minister, warned that Netanyahu was becoming like Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan. The new measures were part of “the cynical exploitation of the coronavirus crisis for the personal, political interests of a defendant before trial,” Ya’alon wrote on Twitter.
Former justice minister Ayelet Shaked MK from the right-wing Yamina, acknowledged that while Netanyahu’s proposed technological surveillance is an “extreme move and a grave violation of privacy” it was a necessary one that would “save lives and money.”
“I intend to personally monitor the operation and ensure that it is done in a minimal and controlled manner, and will be stopped immediately after the crisis passes and that the stored data is wiped clean,” she added.