Inside Netanyahu's Smear Campaign Against the Justice System

Using Likud ministers and his son Yair to test the waters, Netanyahu is no less concerned about public opinion than about the court proceedings. The goal: Make the public believe he won't get a fair trial

Chaim Levinson
Chaim Levinson
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Avichai Mendelblit at the Knesset, February 4, 2020
Avichai Mendelblit at the Knesset, February 4, 2020Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg
Chaim Levinson
Chaim Levinson

Associates of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu are pleased with the support of the right wing upon the opening of his trial. Online support of Netanyahu is strong and as stable as ever. Netanyahu is devoting no less effort to ensuring public support during his trial than to his legal arguments.

Netanyahu devotes many hours a week to preparations for his trial. He sits and reads the material prepared by the prosecution, going over every line while formulating some of the responses himself. He is surrounded by and continues to work with his campaign staff, including Ofer Golan, Topaz Luk, Jonathan Orich, attorney Amit Hadad and his son Yair.

Bibi’s slash-and-burn strategy puts Israel on trial

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Their method is the same, a well-oiled one. Netanyahu’s court journalists and social media writers float some wild claim. A social media furor erupts. Likud ministers see the traffic and show up at TV studios with pointed messages. Netanyahu arrives last, more restrained, more impressive, less explicit, while continuing to stoke the flames.

Not all messages are carefully planned. The team picks up social media messages and pushes them further along, along with Likud cabinet members, touting lines such as “Netanyahu will not get a fair trial,” which for now is a secondary message that will later become a central one.

The main target for now is Attorney General Mendelblit. On the day the government was sworn in, Netanyahu was repeatedly asked if he wished to condemn the threats on Mendelblit, but he didn’t even utter the attorney general’s name.

Before the election, Likud officials worried about personal attacks on Mendelblit, after polls showed that he was popular with right-wing voters, partly due to his biography. The fire was therefore directed at State Prosecutor Shai Nitzan. At the same time, material that could tarnish Mendelblit was collected on Balfour Street. The focus was on recordings relating to the Harpaz affair (which involved the undermining of a candidate for IDF chief of staff), when Mendelblit was the military advocate general.

Netanyahu’s attorney Amit Hadad represented Boaz Harpaz at the time. In that capacity, he received several recordings related to the affair and knew there were others, which were not handed over due to legal difficulties. Netanyahu personally asked that these recordings be obtained, with some of these later published by journalist Ayala Hasson, becoming a key message in Netanyahu’s legal campaign.

In conversations between Haaretz and Netanyahu associates over the last two days, the latter explained that the main objective in their campaign against Mendelblit is to unravel the public’s confidence in the integrity of the law enforcement system. They view Mendelblit as a weak person, easily extorted, someone who did not stand up to pressure exerted by Nitzan, who wanted to indict Netanyahu. The aim is to cast doubt on the judiciousness of the decision to indict, as well as to accuse Nitzan of being tainted as supporting the “left,” and to accuse Mendelblit of being afraid to release the other recordings.

The campaign will continue with idle requests to the court. These will be denied, then followed by a public campaign asking: “What are they hiding?” A first sign of this appeared in the pre-trial hearing, which Netanyahu’s lawyers wanted broadcast live. This was denied, as expected. This week, Netanyahu asked that the entire trial be broadcast live. There is no precedent for this in a politician’s trial. The idea is to create the sense that there is some dark secret which, if exposed, would bring the entire house of cards crashing down.

The next stage will be the judges. Before the election, Netanyahu already claimed that these judges had not denied their left-wing sympathies. So far, the judges have not made any rulings. They will do so later, regarding timetables, for example. Netanyahu’s attitude to these judges will show up in his son’s tweets. The father doesn’t always like the style, but these serve as trial balloons. So far, the tweets are focused on Mendelblit.

Even Netanyahu’s close associates don’t know what he wants. Maintaining public support is a means, not an end. Everyone around him says a plea bargain is out of the question. Netanyahu truly believes that Nitzan concocted something in order to depose him. More than a far-sighted chess player, Netanyahu is like a backgammon player waiting for luck with the dice.

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