Netanyahu Is Glad His Court Will Be in Jerusalem, ‘Where the Judges Go to Synagogue’

The attorney general reportedly says there will be no plea bargain in the prime minister’s corruption cases. If not, experience shows that Netanyahu has no reason to be bullish about the venue

Gidi Weitz
Gidi Weitz
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Benjamin Netanyahu at the High Court defending his government's policy for the natural gas industry, 2016.
Benjamin Netanyahu at the High Court defending his government's policy for the natural gas industry, 2016. Credit: Gil Yochanan
Gidi Weitz
Gidi Weitz

In recent weeks, after realizing that the Knesset would never grant him immunity in the corruption cases against him, Benjamin Netanyahu expressed a degree of satisfaction with the fact that he would be tried in the Jerusalem District Court rather than in Tel Aviv.

Netanyahu seems to believe he would fare better in a Jerusalem court, where more judges are religious and/or right-wing, than in Tel Aviv. The Basic Law on the Government says a prime minister will be tried by a three-judge panel in Jerusalem. So Netanyahu at least has achieved this goal.

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According to one political figure, when he recently asked Netanyahu why it was so important to him to be tried in Jerusalem, the prime minister said that “in Jerusalem the judges go to synagogue, in Tel Aviv they go to the philharmonic.”

This quote reflects the mindset of a prime minister of Jerusalem, as it were, who sees the State of Tel Aviv with its leftists in academia and the media as his greatest domestic enemy.

Netanyahu is right regarding those three judges in Jerusalem. The rate of kippa-wearing judges is higher in the capital than in Tel Aviv, and it’s likely that one or more of them will try his case. In general, Jerusalem is a religious, right-wing city. The right-ultra-Orthodox bloc won more than 70 percent support there in the last election, while in Tel Aviv the result was the opposite.

Benjamin Netanyahu and Avichai Mendelblit, right, at a cabinet meeting in 2014. Credit: Marc Israel Sellem

Is Netanyahu right to assume that identity politics will determine his legal situation? Maybe the lesson will be the same as in the trial of former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who sat in the dock both in Jerusalem and in Tel Aviv.

In 2009, a few months after offering the Palestinians a far-reaching peace arrangement, Olmert was tried before three judges in Jerusalem: the court’s president, Musia Arad, and judges Jacob Zaban and Moshe Sobel. Pundits assumed that the former prime minister would face a harsh panel, noting that Arad had been on the panel that sent Shas’ Arye Dery to prison for corruption. Zaban, meanwhile, had convicted Shlomo Benizri, another former cabinet member from Shas, and sentenced him to prison. (In 2015, Dery became a cabinet member once again.)

Followers of the judges’ comments to the defendant and key witnesses believed that the panel would convict Olmert in the “cash envelopes” case, the double-billing “Rishon Tours” case and the Investment Center conflict-of-interest case. But in July 2012, the former prime minister was acquitted of two of the main charges against him.

Olmert was also on trial in Tel Aviv for bribery – and faced Judge David Rosen. At first, legal experts predicted that Olmert would be acquitted. They noted Rosen’s lenient record with senior officials; he had acquitted former ministers Yaakov Neeman and Avigdor Kahalani.

The impression that Olmert would be acquitted strengthened when, in the early sessions, Rosen showed hostility toward someone who had turned state’s evidence in the case, Shmuel Dechner. Rosen even hinted to defense attorney Roy Blecher about a happy end for the former prime minister: “Many defendants would like to trade places with you guys – in the amount and intensity of the evidence.”

Former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert speaking in Tel Aviv in 2018.Credit: Meged Gozani

But Rosen didn’t acquit Olmert. He convicted him of taking bribes, sentenced him to six years and added scathing comments in the verdict. (In the end, Olmert served around 16 months.) Olmert’s legal saga shows that predicting the trial results based on the judges’ identity, origin or imagined political orientation is like playing roulette.

According to a senior prosecutor, if a ballot box had been placed in the Jerusalem prosecutor’s office before Netanyahu became a suspect, he and the right wing would have won big. Yet this is the same prosecutor’s office whose people vigorously pushed Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit and then-State Prosecutor Shai Nitzan to speed up the investigation in the cases against Netanyahu, based on serious suspicions of criminality. The team of prosecutors who sought Netanyahu’s indictment consisted of several kippa wearers.

So when Netanyahu faces the three Jerusalem judges, even if some of them share his worldview, it’s doubtful whether this will affect their decision.

The only way Netanyahu can avoid trial is to reach a plea deal. But people who have spoken to him say he completely dismisses this option. He continues to claim he is being persecuted, as he did in his police interviews.

“A wacky conspiracy,” he described the suspicions in the Yedioth Ahronoth favorable-news-for-favors case. In a similar case involving the Walla news site of the Bezeq telecom company, Netanyahu said he had “received an enema” from the main shareholder.

People who have spoken to Mendelblit believe that the door to a plea deal is closed. Netanyahu accused the attorney general of giving in to extortion by Nitzan and senior prosecutor Liat Ben Ari, and of taking part in an attempted coup by framing Netanyahu. Thus Mendelblit is convinced that the only option is to try Netanyahu in court.

“The public interest in this case makes it imperative not to have a plea deal and to have the court decide on the basis of the evidence,” the attorney general said recently, according to someone present at the meeting.

It will be interesting to see if Netanyahu and Mendelblit remain entrenched in their positions to the bitter end.

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