The world did not exactly hold its breath on Sunday with the opening of the trial of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem. During most of the day, coverage of the story was pushed to the margins of the news pages and broadcasts. In the foreign news sections as well, for hours the main headline was usually the violent suppression of the demonstrators in Hong Kong.
And still, there was not a single major international media outlet that did not cover the event in Jerusalem District Court in one way or another. Almost all of them focused on the fact that although Israel has already known similar cases, such as the trials of former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and former President Moshe Katsav, this is the first time a prime minister will be sitting in the dock while still serving. Most also added in the same breath that Netanyahu tried with all his might to avoid documentation of this symbolic and historic occasion, up to the very last minute.
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Almost all the foreign media outlets that covered the Netanyahu trial emphasized the prime minister’s attack on the Israeli legal system minutes before the start of the proceedings, while surrounded by his loyal ministers, wearing the coronavirus masks that sealed their mouths. Some compared his belligerent rhetoric against the system to the attitude of other leaders who often attack the legal system in their countries – first and foremost U.S. President Donald Trump.
Many foreign media outlets, including the BBC, had to explain, “How can the prime minister serve and stand trial at the same time?” According to Israeli law, a leader charged with a crime is not required to resign. But there is no precedent for this. Several media outlets, including NPR (National Public Radio) in the United States, framed the story as the tragic summit of Netanyahu’s long-term battle against the Israeli media.
“He was his country’s most powerful man. Time magazine crowned him ‘king of Israel.’ But he couldn’t win over Israel’s unforgiving free press. So he is accused of buying his way inside the newsroom of a leading news site, secretly dictating flattering coverage that helped him win reelection twice. That allegation is at the center of an unprecedented courtroom drama that kicks off Sunday in Jerusalem: the State of Israel vs Benjamin Netanyahu,” the network reported to its listeners.
The Washington Post wrote before the opening of the trial that “Netanyahu’s refusal to step down puts the country in unknown territory, with each of his actions as prime minister likely to be weighed in light of his trial.”
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In their commentary on “the implications of the trial for Israel,” the world media also mentioned Netanyahu’s intention of annexing the settlements in the West Bank in the near future. In their broadcasts they added an explanation to the effect that the more the cases against him progress, the greater Netanyahu’s efforts to woo the political right. The foreign media also noted that the trial against Netanyahu is expected to last for a long time and that during that period it is expected to split Israeli society, which is already polarized over him, even further.
Pictures of today’s agitated demonstrators, for and against the defendant, served as a suitable backdrop for this theory. Some of the world’s leading newspapers and TV channels also mentioned the weak response to Netanyahu’s trial on the part of his coalition partners, the Kahol Lavan party headed by Benny Gantz, who until a moment ago were the biggest critics of his serving under indictment.
But of course the media weren’t the only ones overseas who were listening closely throughout the day to the courtroom proceedings. Political advisers in all the embassies in Israel wrote to their capitals, reporting on the opening shot in the long legal battle. Since the announcement of the formation of the government, special attention has been paid by many world leaders to the alternate prime minister – or APM as he is officially called in diplomatic jargon – Benny Gantz, as well as to the new Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi.
This is in total contrast to Ashkenazi’s predecessor Yisrael Katz, to whom prominent leaders barely spoke. The Trump administration, which is very close to Netanyahu, is also regularly referring now to Gantz in its declarations, and its senior officials are meeting with him and with Ashkenazi. In many embassies they are now saying behind the scenes that there is no question that there is lively diplomatic attention being paid to the new partners, and that Netanyahu’s trial is spiking their interest in his presumed successors.
Other international groups that are vigilantly following the trial are leading research institutes that compile indexes of democracy and corruption. In recent years Netanyahu’s trial, as well as his attacks against the media and the legal system, have been mentioned as likely factors in lowering Israel’s place in the most important world rankings by these measures. Thus, the outcome of the trial will affect not only the future of Netanyahu himself but that of Israel’s international standing.