On Sunday at 3pm, defendant Benjamin Netanyahu is scheduled to arrive at the District Court in Jerusalem. For many, it is a moral stain on Israel that its serving prime minister is facing criminal charges in court.
On the right, there are those convinced that the legal system has no right to prosecute an elected leader, and that this is a Deep State plot to undermine the will of the people. On the left, there is the view that this is just a symptom of how corruption has become endemic to the Israeli state.
Bibi swears in his colossal coalition and readies for a courtroom showdown
Perhaps both sides are wrong. Israel is not unique in having corrupt politicians, even corrupt prime ministers and presidents. It is however pretty special in its ability to put these leaders on trial and has sent in recent years both a convicted rapist president and a convicted bribe-taking prime minister to prison.
Moshe Katzav and Ehud Olmert are far from being the only senior politicians worldwide to have used their positions for sexual assault and amassing riches. They are, however, extremely rare in having been held accountable and imprisoned for their crimes, without Israel having to undergo a revolution.
Sunday is accountability day. A valuable moment in which Israel can celebrate one of the strengths of its democracy. But should we even be looking at the Netanyahu trial as a symptom of Israel’s morality and democracy? Does the legal fate of one man, no matter how powerful or corrupt, stand for so much when then are far greater historic injustices afoot?
Take the location of the trial for example: The Jerusalem District Court in on Salah ad-Din Street, across the road from the Justice Ministry. Both fortress-like buildings signify Israeli sovereignty in the hostile environment of the heart of Palestinian East Jerusalem. No other country, not even the United States, recognizes the neighborhood as part of Israel. The judges, and lawyers and clerks of the court and the ministry don’t do their shopping in the surrounding streets or go for lunch in the local restaurants.
It’s a bizarre type of Israeli occupation: the district court doesn’t even deal with that many cases concerning Palestinians. It was just plonked there on Salah ad-Din, and is due to move to the western side of Jerusalem when the new "courts quarter" is built. Hundreds of journalists will descend on the court on Sunday, without remarking on its incongruous address.
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The late editor of this newspaper, David Landau, departed from Haaretz orthodoxy on more than one issue, and wasn’t a big fan of what he called the "law and order mafia." This was partly due to his view that a "thousand bigger injustices are committed every day at a roadblock in the West Bank" than in any corrupt politician’s office. He believed our efforts to shine a light on the dark intersection between power and money was a diversion from our much greater mission of reminding Israelis that we’re still occupying millions of stateless human beings.
Thursday was Jerusalem Day, the 53rd anniversary of East Jerusalem’s liberation from Jordanian rule and reunification with the western side of the city. I’ve no problem using the terms "liberation" and "reunification" non-ironically, because the Hashemite Kingdom had no legal basis for occupying half of the city back in 1948, and Jerusalem should be a united city. That doesn’t change the fact that Jerusalem remains divided in many ways, and a third of its residents live in dilapidated and neglected conditions, without full rights.
Jerusalem Day celebrations were muted this year due to COVID-19 restrictions, but for decades now it’s been an anniversary marked only by politicians and religious nationalists. Ironically, the more Israelis have become right-wing and prospects for a two-state solution increasingly distant, the less they seem inclined to celebrate the occupation. It’s just a mundane fact of life.
On the right, but on the left as well, people are just used to it. The ostensible left-wingers are so used to it, that they’re actually mobilizing themselves now against the prospect of the new government annexing 30 percent of the West Bank. As if the current situation on the ground is all fine and well, as long as we don’t annex.
Netanyahu’s annexation game is very transparent. He has spent his entire career trying to put the Palestinian issue on the back-burner, as far away as possible from the international agenda. In recent years it’s worked, as the world just stopped caring about a conflict that’s going nowhere. Why reignite it now when no-one is challenging Israel’s control of the West Bank anyway?
He needed annexation as an election gimmick, but now he’s finally sworn in a new government, Netanyahu doesn’t want to upset the status quo apple cart. But annexation isn’t just a glittering prize for the settlers.
Preventing annexation will give the left-wing an illusion of rare victory. As if they’ve actually struck a blow against the occupation. As if next Jerusalem Day we won’t be marking 54 years of occupation. It will be as fleeting and illusory a victory as seeing Netanyahu in the dock on Sunday in East Jerusalem.