Netanyahu the Defendant Serves Notice on His Judges: You’re Next

Netanyahu arrived to the first day of his trial surrounded by half of his Likud party after the first session of his new bloated government

Yossi Verter
Yossi Verter
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Netanyahu in court
Netanyahu in courtCredit: Amit Shabi
Yossi Verter
Yossi Verter

We’ve already heard distorted, false, unrestrained, hateful speeches from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. We’ve heard them from the podium of his office, from his residence and at political events. On Sunday he gave the most barbed one ever, in the lobby of the Jerusalem District Court, within spitting distance of the judges’ chamber, a moment before his trial began. He did this as if to warn them: After I took care of the police, the prosecution and the attorney general, just know you are next in line.

It has often been said about Netanyahu, “just when you think you’ve seen everything, you've seen nothing yet.” What was different this time was the backdrop he’d organized for himself: Around half the Likud faction, including senior ministers, their mouths blocked by masks – how symbolic – were standing behind the defendant charged with serious crimes as he excoriated the law enforcement system like the most despicable of criminals.

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Only a week ago, Netanyahu complained that the security arrangements required for him to appear in court would cost taxpayers a fortune. But after he was forced to appear, he made sure that a host of notables came with him, sending the security costs skyrocketing. Even his bureau chief, Asher Hayoun, came, as if he didn’t have anything better to do for the public that pays his salary.

There were those behind him who had been generously rewarded in the division of portfolios, and one who got a hammer to the head but still hasn’t recovered from the obsequiousness virus. Eli Cohen, a refugee from Kulanu, whose receipt of a portfolio shocked many in Likud, was there. The same Cohen who a year ago said that one cannot run a country while under indictment has apparently changed his mind, and by showing up made it clear what price he had to pay for his job.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the first sitting of the new government, Jerusalem, May 24, 2020Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

And there were a few other MKs who would sell their souls just to be in a photo. One of them, May Golan, had one of her usual inarticulate fits before the microphones. This was the same Golan, a mini-Miri Regev, whom Netanyahu wanted to name to the judicial appointments committee.

Afterward the gang gathered for a group photo in one of the courtrooms. The public security minister and another minister of nothing climbed onto the benches as if they were members of La Familia at Jerusalem’s Teddy Stadium. One can assume that some of those in the picture wanted to die, but the pressures exerted on them from the Balfour residence over the weekend wore them down. Others, who weren’t invited, looked on longingly. “Disgraceful,” said one Likud minister, privately.

Knesset speaker Yariv Levin had made sure to castigate the court even before his leader did, and made all of us miss his predecessor, Yuli Edelstein, sooner than we’d thought. Levin, incidentally, didn’t pose for the embarrassing picture because he is a witness for the prosecution, not because he thought there was anything wrong with it.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gives a statement to the media before the first session of his trial in the Jerusalem District Court, May 24, 2020.Credit: Yonatan Sindel/Flash90

What a difference four hours makes: At 11 A.M. Netanyahu opened the first meeting of his inflated cabinet. He sounded statesmanlike and responsible. “We will take a sharp axe to the bureaucracy that is blocking or delaying the provision of assistance to people who deserve it,” he promised. At 3 P.M., only a few kilometers eastward, he partially delivered: He took a sharp axe to the gatekeepers, to law enforcement. Dr. Netanyahu and Mr. Bibi.

What was going through the mind of Benny Gantz, who sufficed with a wimpy tweet expressing confidence in the court? How ridiculous and ironic the “reconciliation” cabinet he set up with Netanyahu looked. Gantz came to all this with good intentions. It was only later he discovered that reconciliation, as far as his partner is concerned, could only come when the police, the prosecution, the attorney general, the media, the left and even some people on the right, whom he dubbed “obedient poodles,” would be laying on the ground, decapitated.

As usual, Netanyahu divided the issue into left and right. If he had evacuated settlements, he argued, there would have been no indictments. As if the detectives at Lahav 433 are employed by Peace Now, and as if their overseers, like former police Commissioner Roni Alsheikh and Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit, aren’t right-wing from birth and supporters of the settlements.

Defense Minister Benny Gantz at the first sitting of the new government, Jerusalem, May 24, 2020Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

Netanyahu’s tactic of slandering his accusers didn’t help Arye Dery or Ehud Olmert. Dery eventually admitted that it had been his biggest mistake. The fire Netanyahu is setting is a thousand times larger and more dangerous because of his strength and status. Every speech, every awful tweet by him or his son, every sharing of a text that claims this is a “political” trial, shames Israel as a democratic country whose legal system is globally admired, far more than its political system.

And if we’re already talking about Netanyahu’s sons, the premier actually came to court with Avner, the more popular one. The elder son, Yair, who heads the conspiracies and libels team, was left behind, both to avoid paining the judges too much, and so that he could continue his work inciting Dad’s “base.”

If there was anyone expecting Netanyahu to show some humility or make an effort to lower the flames on the first day of his trial, Sunday’s address proved them wrong. Now the political system will calm down somewhat, until the testimony and evidence stage. As the defendant’s lawyers indicated, they are playing for time, to delay the inevitable as much as possible.

What does this mean? That we can bet we’re more likely to have another election before we have a verdict. These will be connected to each other, of course. And as long as his senior partner, Gantz, is locked into the Netanyahu government, effective opposition to the latter’s corruption is reduced. That’s exactly what the prime minister is counting on.

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