As of mid-week, over 5,200 Israelis had died of COVID-19, more than 3.6 million Israelis had been vaccinated, and the prime minister of Israel was still waiting for a call from the new president of the United States.
On Monday, police officers, Border Police, Shin Bet agents and members of the court security service were deployed outside the Jerusalem District Court, where Benjamin Netanyahu was attending the second hearing in his corruption trial. Roadblocks, police vans, explosives detection dogs, a helicopter hovering above. This was no circus – it was a war zone.
It looked as though half the security and policing forces of the State of Israel were concentrated in the streets around the courthouse on Saladin Street in East Jerusalem. If the Jordanian army had wanted to make a move on Israel, all it would have had to do was bypass the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood and within two hours it would have been on Frishman Beach in Tel Aviv.
This was a sight that’s hard to get used to, but we may have no choice. If Netanyahu actually shows up regularly for the court sessions in his cases, someone will have to make a calculation of his trial’s financial costs. Imagine “unprecedented security operation” multiplied by three times a week.
On one side of the street the anti-Bibi carnival had arrived to demonstrate with inflatable submarines, bicycle horns and drums. “He’s a thief,” “He’s an undertaker,” etc. One man, particularly worked up, shouted abominations via a megaphone at a reporter for the Walla news site, Sapir Levy: “Elovitch turned Walla into a whore! Sara tells him to switch the picture”; “Sapir, maybe you won’t, but your colleagues will take the stand and describe how your site was turned into the Netanyahu family’s whore.” The guy was brimming with hatred. I’ve never seen a person harbor such powerful emotions for a website.
The Bibists stayed home on Monday, however. Ran Carmi Buzaglo, Itzik Zarka and the other fanatic admirers who generally never miss an event, obeyed the order of the Leader, who asked them not to come to demonstrate because of the danger of the COVID-19 “British mutation.” Only one Netanyahu supporter, Shlomo Vaknin, who apparently couldn’t restrain himself, stood alone, across from the anti-Bibi folks, wearing a “Bibi vaccinated me” T-shirt. What mutation could infect him? Let it just try.
It wasn’t by chance that the prime minister asked his people to stay home. Defendant Netanyahu this week was not the same defendant this time that he was at the hearing last May. This time it was without militant speeches from the upper floor of the courthouse, without demonstrators threatening to storm the building, without tricks and without shticks. He almost seemed a submissive citizen this time. For 20 minutes, he sat and waited for his judges to enter the courtroom. For 12 years he hasn’t waited for anyone – everyone waits for him. Israel waits for Netanyahu, the whole world waits for Netanyahu.
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So there you go. He was sitting and waiting for the trio of honorable judges. Seated on a chair, facing his lawyers. The window next to him was open. No way he didn’t hear the horns and catcalls from outside: “Bibi go home! Bibi go home!” When the judges entered, the accused rose in their honor.
At the same time, 14 reporters were gathered in a small anteroom on the ground floor of the courthouse. The historic event taking place two floors above was broadcast on a large screen. The frame on the screen was static, shot from above in order to capture the entire courtroom. The figures looked tiny. Twenty-four masked people attired in black were sitting in rows behind tables laden with books and papers. It looked like a security camera documenting a class in school. The judges were outside the frame, the pupils sitting neatly, each in their place. You could barely make out Noni Mozes or the Elovitch couple. Netanyahu sat in the second row and listened.
Judge Rivka Friedman-Feldman addressed the defendants and asked them to confirm that they stood behind the detailed responses to their respective indictments that had been submitted to the court. “Mr. Netanyahu, good morning. I assume that you, sir, saw the written answer to the indictment. Do you confirm that this is the response?”
The prime minister: “I confirm the written response.”
The press room was quiet. The reporters were concentrating on their work, documenting what was said in the hearing, sending reports to their editors or to Twitter. Anyone who wasn’t totally committed to a breaking-news mission couldn’t help but gaze hypnotically at the man on the screen with a blue tie and his legs crossed.
Netanyahu is one of the most resilient prime ministers we’ve had here. Former President Barack Obama, in his memoir, describes Netanyahu as possessing the physicality of a football player. Rumor has it that in security drills, the agents who throw themselves on top of the premier to protect him aren’t able to topple him to the ground.
You could see how the man is becoming a legend in his own lifetime (“He stood three meters tall, each arm as strong as an oak tree…” Bibists will say about him in another 100 years). Did he feel any humility as he sat before his three judges? Did this stocky, robust man suddenly see himself small in the face of the proceedings around him? In the face of the crushing bureaucracy of the judicial system?
He sat there looking focused, jotting down comments on a note pad. But who knows what he really thought and what he was calculating. Was his mind really there, in synch with the experience, looking for nuances and loopholes in the legal procedure, or was his brain leaping ahead, beyond the confines of the courtroom? After all, in a certain political constellation, he could put an end to this whole scene, inform the honorable judges that they had completed their task, thank them, bow and stride breezily out of there.
Two or three Knesset seats going this way or that way in the upcoming election and he’ll be able to take the rigid and frightening reality of “The defendant will rise” and turn it into a memory, a pleasant gentlemanly spectacle with black robes and “My honorable sir” and “My learned friend.” In a certain parallel universe, the whole event could end like the answer to a trivia question. The three judges could look to him like amusing puppets. In yet another universe, they could be his executioners.
He was there for less than half an hour. At 9:38 A.M., the main defendant rose and declared in his familiar baritone: “Thank you very much, everyone,” and left the courtroom. That remark sounded almost humorous, as though he were saying, “I enjoyed your little show and now I need to get back to the really important matters.”
And he did indeed do that. In the course of that day photographs cropped up of meetings with the health minister, with the director of the Israeli project to develop a medication for COVID-19 and with the prime minister of Greece. They didn’t pop up by chance: Netanyahu has to show the public that the trial isn’t disrupting his management of the affairs of state. Otherwise the voters will flee him in the election, heaven forbid, and if they do, he won’t be fleeing his trial. When U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger said that Israel has no foreign policy, only domestic politics, he never imagined that within a number of years, Israel wouldn’t have either foreign policy or domestic politics, only legal tactics.
The hearing went on for more than another three hours after defendant No. 1 left to meet with his Greek counterpart and the other extras on his crowded schedule. Attorney Boaz Ben Zur tried to argue that the trial was completely invalid, because the attorney general never properly authorized the start of the investigation. Ben Zur has a special talent for speaking. It seems as though he’s capable of talking and talking until God tells him, “Stop.” The judges tried telling him that a few times, but to no avail.
Attorney Ben Zur: “This issue is a precedent-setting one, this issue is a constitutional one, I ask that I be given reasonable forbearance in order to examine the contention that there is a very substantive argument here.”
Judge Friedman-Feldman: “We are listening to you patiently, but the patience is also limited. Be concise and focus.”
Attorney Ben Zur: “I will be concise and I will be focused and I have a lot to focus on.” And from there he only continued to expatiate.
From the moment the prime minister left the building, the tension in the compound dissipated. The Shin Bet guys disappeared, the police reduced their ranks, the court guards relaxed. Two young workers took apart the boards that had made the third floor and the area leading to it sterile. The circus folded up, the battle procedures were restored to a state of routine.
But the hearing went on and on. The wheels of justice turned. The sides continued to squabble over the order in which witnesses would be called and about the date for the evidentiary stage.
Ben Zur: “The case is not ripe for deliberation. There are issues of search warrants, issues of authorizations of the attorney general…”
Prosecution Attorney Liat Ben Ari: “The evidence has been in your possession for two years already…”
Elovitch Defense Attorney Michal Rosen-Ozer: “The state is piling difficulties on us. We did not ask for a stay even once, but let them not wear us down with empty procedures.”
A lot of frustration was vented by all the lawyers, some of which sounded sincere, some of it affected. The sides argued over every word, philosophized over every fine detail, tried to get to one another over trivialities. All in all, acceptable litigating activity. Every so often emotions were aroused that exposed the true enmity and suspicion between the sides.
By noontime the judges sounded exhausted. They’re going to need a huge dose of patience, it looks as though they’ll be spending a lot of time together.