Last week I asked Uri Korb, one of the prosecutors in former prime minister Ehud Olmert’s trial, what the meaning of the opening session of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s trial on Sunday was. After all, it’s just a technical stage of the trial. “The opening session is the first time the defendant sees the prosecutor,” Korb pointed out. “It’s a sobering moment, especially for someone who was the prime minister. Suddenly, he comes face-to-face with the person who has been preparing the case against him for months, and will be doing everything to put him in prison from now on.”
The moment Netanyahu walked in to courtroom 317 at the Jerusalem District Court, a few minutes before 3:00 P.M., and came face-to-face for the first time with Senior State Prosecutor Liat Ben Ari was pivotal. Ben Ari has been building the case against him for over three years now, and will lead the prosecution in his trial. Just before entering the courtroom, Netanyahu made a fifteen-minute statement in the corridor. Flanked by Likud ministers, he lambasted the police and the prosecution.
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Someone had made sure to bring a wooden lectern bearing the official seal of the State of Israel to the courthouse especially for the statement. The statement was played by the television networks in its entirety, with no interruptions from journalists. The media was permitted to report on the case freely, but only from the floor below the courtroom, where they watched the proceedings on a closed-circuit television. It was the perfect image of Netanyahu’s Israel – a confrontational and irreverent press, saying and reporting whatever it pleases while Netanyahu floats serenely above.
Netanyahu was in command of the moment, with all the power of the premiership. In the corridor he was still in his Israel, where he is all-powerful.
On the other side of the wall, in the courtroom, was a parallel Israel, one in which Netanyahu is a defendant who was allowed to bring just one lawyer with him. A parallel Israel where Netanyahu was forced, against his will, into a position where presiding Judge Rivka Friedman-Feldman and her colleagues Moshe Bar-Am and Oded Shaham were in charge for fifty minutes.
While the photographers were still in the courtroom, before the judges’ entrance, Netanyahu remained standing, to deny them a picture of him sitting on the defendants’ bench. As they left and Netanyahu settled down, he tried to remain ramrod straight and look straight ahead at Friedman-Feldman. The CCTV cameras through which journalists could observe the proceedings were focused on his back. The minutes ticked on and the prime inister's lawyer, Micha Fettman, spoke, followed by the three other defendants' lawyers. Netanyahu could be seen looking sideways furtively at Ben Ari, sitting just three meters away from him at the prosecution table. He became increasingly and visibly uncomfortable, caught between two women in black robes who now control his fate.
At one point, Ben Ari compared the quantity of evidence in the case to that of “the Holyland case in which I was, coincidentally, also involved.” There was no coincidence there. The Holyland case was the one in which Olmert was convicted. I’ve taken down one prime minister already, Ben Ari was telling Netanyahu, I can do it again.
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Fettman and Netanyahu’s second lawyer, Amit Hadad, referred to him as “the prime minister” throughout the session, emphasizing the words. But Friedman-Feldman made a point of calling him “Mr. Netanyahu” and even admonished one of the lawyers by saying “you’re obstructing Mr. Netanyahu’s view,” so he could see the full majesty of Israeli justice.
It was a majestic moment. No matter how long the trial takes and whatever the verdict will be, those fifty minutes in which Netanyahu was just another defendant were never to be taken for granted. He had done everything, fair and foul, to try and avoid his day in court. But there he was, answering to Friedman-Feldman. It was a rare moment, not just for Israel, a country where a prime minister and a president have already gone to prison. It would have been a rare moment anywhere in the world, where leaders are almost never held accountable in court for their alleged crimes. For fifty minutes, it wasn’t Netanyahu’s Israel.