Analysis

Netanyahu’s Supporters Dare the Court

They seek to convince the public that the prime minister's line - that he is the victim of a plot - is legitimate criticism on his part

Mordechai Kremnitzer.
Mordechai Kremnitzer
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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the first session of his trial, Jerusalem District Court, May 24, 2020
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the first session of his trial, Jerusalem District Court, May 24, 2020Credit: AFP
Mordechai Kremnitzer.
Mordechai Kremnitzer

The Netanyahu-Gantz government launched its promised journey toward national reconciliation and unity on Sunday. But framing the prime minister’s trial, as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his disciples did, as a war between the populist right and a loathsome left engaged in a coup is undoubtedly an innovative way of achieving reconciliation and unity.

Cabinet ministers and Knesset members from Netanyahu’s Likud party took a break from their parliamentary work to stand beside this Israeli Dreyfus of a prime minister. He, too, is the victim of a rigged case. In so doing, the ministers and MKs sought to bolster Netanyahu’s line that he’s an innocent victim of persecution by an elitist, hegemonic, left-wing establishment (the police, the prosecution, the media and others) – solely because of his right-wing policies.

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The goal is to send a message to the judges in his corruption trial, which opened Sunday: We all support the line that Netanyahu has been framed, and woe unto you if you don’t adopt that line. To the extent that we can, we’ll settle scores with you.

The goal is also to send the public a message – we are all Netanyahu; we’re all in the dock. This, too, poses a challenge of sorts to the court: Let’s see you judge half the country.

Pro-Netanyahu demonstration outside the Jerusalem District Court, May 24, 2020.
Pro-Netanyahu demonstration outside the Jerusalem District Court, May 24, 2020. The poster at the back shows Dreyfus and Netanyahu - the word in red means 'persecution.'Credit: Emil Salman

For now, the judges are the ones being pressured. When at some point the prosecution begins calling witnesses to testify, the pressure will be aimed at them – much weaker links who may well be influenced.

One could almost feel sorry for the senior Likud members who showed up. They subjected themselves to endless competition over their total, excessive loyalty to Netanyahu. If any of them takes another single step forward, the others wouldn’t allow themselves to lag behind.

So why not really pity them? Because they brought this upon themselves – by unconditionally backing the efforts of an indicted prime minister to remain in office. Their stance is a badge of shame for them and for everyone else who failed to prevent this absurdity.

Netanyahu’s supporters seek to convince the public that his line that he is the victim of a plot is legitimate criticism on the prime minister’s part. But that’s a tainted argument. There is no relationship between substantive criticism of law enforcement agencies – which is both legitimate and desirable – and accusing them of illegitimate motives without a shred of evidence and in defiance of all logic.

After all, to accept this conspiracy theory, you would have to believe that a radical left-wing bloc managed to plant at least three agents among the police and the prosecution – former Police Commissioner Roni Alsheich, former State Prosecutor Shai Nitzan and Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit. Their cover was so good that even Netanyahu’s sophisticated “leftometer” failed to detect their true identities.

But this conspiracy theory has been enormously successful among the public. It’s clear and simple. It completely exonerates a prime minister whom many admire, and it creates an enemy that’s easy to hate. Many good people have been tempted to believe it.

Nevertheless, it’s a trap. If this claim is serious, Netanyahu’s defense team has to raise it in court during preliminary arguments as grounds for throwing the case out. And if it’s raised in court, its soft underbelly will be exposed – the fact that it’s nonsense.

Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit at a law conference, April 9, 2020
Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit at a law conference, April 9, 2020Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

Yet if it’s not raised, any honest, open-minded person will have to reconsider whether to believe it. Could it be that Netanyahu was pulling one over on them?

The prime minister isn’t acting like someone who believes in his own innocence. Someone who believes in his innocence wouldn’t attack the law enforcement system like that. Someone who believes in his innocence wouldn’t need to brazenly move the fight from the courtroom to the media or subject the court to the grumbling and threats of his political loyalists and the street. Someone who is certain of his innocence wouldn’t play for time by initiating new legal battles at at every turn in the case, as his associates have promised.

All of this is how someone acts when his defense is built on hounding the prosecution in the hope of winning occasional points rather than on a genuinely strong case. Anyone who submits lots of silly requests to the court, such as asking that the trial be broadcast live after his previous request was rejected, shows that for him, what matters most is how the trial plays out among the public rather than in the courtroom.

Some people are impressed by the large numbers of voters who cast their ballots in the elections for Likud with Netanyahu at its helm. They say the vote means that even people who were aware of the indictments believed his story. In other words, the public has judged him innocent.

But that’s nonsense. Since the court hasn’t yet started hearing the evidence, any judgment regarding it is baseless. And more importantly, the ballot box isn’t a substitute for the court; and voters aren’t in charge of making legal judgments. If cases are to be decided at the polls, Israel has ceased to be a country ruled by law.

A demonstration in support of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on the first day of his trial, Jerusalem, May 24, 2020
A demonstration in support of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on the first day of his trial, Jerusalem, May 24, 2020Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

Some have condemned the trial even before it began on the grounds that the public has already passed judgment on Netanyahu, so a fair trial is impossible. This is a big mistake, even though the court does face a very tough job and the public’s judgment in this case isn’t monolithic. There are people on both sides of the fence.

And above all, if we accept this approach, we’re giving the power to determine who will avoid trial to anyone who seeks to do so and has power in the media. That would be unacceptable.

Pessimists were also quick to say a fair trial was impossible in Interior Minister Arye Dery’s case in the 1990s. They were proven wrong.

On the three trips to Jerusalem every schoolchild is now required to take, in accordance with a decision by the new education minister, Yoav Gallant, students should visit the national police headquarters, the Justice Ministry and the courts, as well perhaps as the public broadcasting corporation. And they should be accompanied by Likud ministers.

It’s important for students to see these leftist enemies with their own eyes and learn to identify them – those among them who have not yet been defeated and are still scheming. It’s important for the students to learn that the battle for Jerusalem is not over and that they have to prepare to defeat the enemy.

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