Analysis

Netanyahu Trial: PM Is Finally Facing Opponents Who Won't Back Down

There will be no weakness on the bench of the Jerusalem District Court Sunday when Bibi's historic corruption trial gets underway

Yossi Verter
Yossi Verter
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Benjamin Netanyahu and the three judges he'll face at the Jerusalem District Court starting on May 24, 2020.
Benjamin Netanyahu and the three judges he'll face at the Jerusalem District Court starting on May 24, 2020.Credit: Amos Biderman
Yossi Verter
Yossi Verter

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On Sunday afternoon it will finally hit him – maybe when he passes the security guards protecting the courtroom’s back door. Or maybe earlier, as he broods in the motorcade crossing Jerusalem west to east, sirens howling.

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

But it will certainly hit him when he looks in the eyes of the three judges and finds not an iota of groveling or weakness. These won’t be the faces of his yes-men or the politicians begging for a portfolio, scattering the last crumbs of their dignity.

This wasn’t the plan, to stand before the judges and answer the simple question: “Has the defendant read the indictment and understood?” On this unexplored planet he’s not Mr. Prime Minister, he’s a defendant facing criminal charges. More precisely, he’s the most senior defendant, standing there and disgracing the country he leads.

Had his designs succeeded, this event would never have taken place. We would have seen parliamentary immunity, legislation overriding the High Court of Justice, and a blocking of his indictment as long as he’s prime minister. He might have fired the attorney general and appointed a substitute who would have delayed, delayed and delayed.

All the plots collapsed, all the schemes were scrapped. The rungs he labored to install on his escape-from-justice ladder were sawed off.

His pathetic attempt to dodge his trial’s opening, with childish pretexts that had no chance of working, was disdainfully dismissed by the judges after being rejected by the State Prosecutor’s Office. His attorneys Amit Hadad and Micha Fettman wackily responded that Netanyahu in the dock was “a continuation of the ‘Anyone but Bibi’ campaign.”

The Jerusalem District Court, May 21, 2020.Credit: Emil Salman

Only an especially suspicious mind would think that the two lawyers had been forced to sign such blatantly unprofessional, undignified words that someone else had written. Let’s say someone from the defendant’s family.

The behavior of the client and his family toward their lawyers, the bickering over legal fees (and failure to pay), and their harnessing of the attorneys to a venomous, uninhibited campaign are exactly the reasons that more dignified lawyers opted out.

Many observers betted that at the last moment Benjamin Netanyahu would create a fake crisis that would “oblige” him to ask to be absent from the trial’s opening; after all, he would have to take part in emergency discussions. But Netanyahu, with an astounding lack of self-awareness, argued he shouldn’t show up so that he could spare the state the huge costs of his large entourage of bodyguards.

Somehow this surprising sensitivity to the taxpayer wasn’t displayed when he formed his cabinet of three-dozen ministers, or on those trips abroad replete with a bed in the airliner. Nor did we see this frugality when his son’s bills from strip clubs came due, not to mention the driver and bodyguards.

The courtroom exchange between the judges, defense lawyers and prosecutors will be technical; schedules, work procedures and the like. The tones may rise a little when Netanyahu’s lawyers launch an offensive criticizing the evidence and the way the prosecution uses it. The whining and shouting of “conspiracy” at the prosecutors will be a mainstay of the defense.

Meanwhile, the thoughts of Defendant No. 1 will wander far. The presidency, which will be up for grabs in 14 months, is the only shelter that can stop the trial and provide Netanyahu with seven-year immunity until July 2028, a year before his 80th birthday. He doesn’t discuss this scenario with the politicians around him, but the assumption that he’ll seek the post is picking up speed in the Knesset. The President’s Residence is the only fortress beyond the court’s long arm.

Meanwhile, he’s focusing his malice and destruction on Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit. The operation against Mendelblit stinks from the head. The Bibi-ists’ malicious campaigns, soaked with conspiracy theories, lies and incitement, are flooding social media.

Outgoing Justice Minister Amir Ohana and Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit at the ministry's handover event, May 2020.
Outgoing Justice Minister Amir Ohana and Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit at the ministry's handover event, May 2020.Credit: Shlomi Amsalem / GPO

One layer above this – Netanyahu’s sycophants and mouthpieces in the print and broadcast media, and eccentrics who will always take the opposite side of the system – have published learned theses on the deep state that has framed the beloved king.

Recently he started sharing, in his own name, articles and opinions that perpetuate the lies about Mendelblit and the accusations regarding the prosecution’s motives. The father no longer hides behind the son and the unholy spirit – he’s spreading the lies himself among his millions of followers on social media.

The commander gives the word and the soldiers salute and march. On Army Radio on Thursday, senior Likudnik David Amsalem called Mendelblit an “alleged criminal,” adding that “nobody disputes this.”

Fortunately, the justice minister was replaced this week; finally a sane statement was issued from that office, after years of hostility and attacks. The statement denounced Amsalem’s stream of vituperation. In view of Amsalem’s thuggish attacks on the attorney general and the justice system, we can say there’s no dispute he’s behaving like a gangster. Allegedly.

Bibi’s signs of regret

A week before the government was sworn in, a right-wing official sent Netanyahu a message: fire Mendelblit now, before Kahol Lavan enters the cabinet; the government that appointed the attorney general has the authority to fire him. I don’t know if the message reached Netanyahu. In any case, he didn’t act on it.

What good would it do? The trial is underway, the train has left the station. The investigations into Netanyahu that haven’t opened yet will take a long time to ripen, unless new Public Security Minister Amir Ohana, responsible for the police, foils them. Mendelblit is ending his term in one year and nine months. His opponents are demanding that he resign before that.

Benny Gantz arriving for the new government's swearing-in ceremony, May 2020.
Benny Gantz arriving for the new government's swearing-in ceremony, May 2020.Credit: Alex Kolomoisky

Apart from the vindictiveness that Netanyahu, wife and son are immersed in, they crave Mendelblit’s resignation so they can say it’s proof of his guilt. If he’s guilty, the corruption cases against Netanyahu are a frame-up. All the investigations indictments are tainted and invalid.

They’re trying to portray the long, meticulous investigations as fruit of the poisonous tree, something crafted by conspiratorial, evil prosecutors. Funny, this is the first time the rotten apple points a finger at the tree.

The week Kahol Lavan fell apart and Benny Gantz launched his dangerous affair with Netanyahu, I wondered here about the future of this romance. How will a naive lamb live with a dangerous, wounded wolf? How will the knights of the rule of law, allegedly, fare in a government whose leader rants against the justice system? There will be many crises in the unity government.

In the investigative news show “Uvda,” Gantz was asked about the attorney general’s future and replied as expected: Mendelblit will remain in office until the end of his term; there’s no reason to replace him. Interviewer Ilana Dayan asked about a scenario in which the High Court disqualifies Netanyahu from serving as “alternate prime minister” – Gantz’s current role and Netanyahu’s stipulated role after a rotation of the premiership. Gantz said Kahol Lavan won’t support legislation letting the Knesset override the court; such legislation could sidestep such a ruling by the court.

Meanwhile, new Justice Minister Avi Nissenkorn said he decided not to appoint a committee to appoint a state prosecutor but let Mendelblit serve as acting state prosecutor. If that weren’t enough, Ronen Tzur, Gantz’s adviser, said he believed that the rotation of the premiership would take place before the allotted date of 18 months from now.

This drove the residents on Balfour Street insane with rage. How dare Gantz talk like that? – Netanyahu roared at associates. The new government is barely two days old and I have to hear stuff like this?

What did he expect, that Gantz would join the cabinet and then act like David Amsalem?

Usually at this stage, Netanyahu already shows signs of regret. On the phone the night between Tuesday and Wednesday, he held heated discussions on possible retaliatory steps. Revenge was served warm the next morning. The so-called Norwegian Law, the apple of Kahol Lavan’s eye, was removed from the Knesset’s agenda. Thus ministers won’t be resigning as Knesset members to free up seats for politicians lower down on a party’s ticket.

Yoav Gallant after taking over as education minister in May 2020.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

Gantz and Netanyahu were supposed to meet Thursday to calm things down. If we thought they’d touch elbows to make up, elbows were used to jab at ribs. Such flare-ups will be routine. Either way, they better not forget to mention the coronavirus every now and then. After all, it’s an emergency government.

Late Night with Benjamin Netanyahu

The government will have a three-month trial period, Netanyahu told Likud legislators this week. The land mine, he says, is annexation. We may not be able to pass it, he thought out loud. He didn’t elaborate – will the U.S. administration, on the eve of the presidential election, put on the brakes – or will the Kahol Lavan bloc put up obstacles? But his body language conveyed deep skepticism.

There’s also the High Court. Petitions have been filed against clauses in the coalition agreement such as the idea of the century known as the “alternate prime minister.” This scheme was concocted to ensure that Gantz reaches the rotation stage, and was improved to keep Netanyahu in the cabinet despite his corruption indictments.

When the court sets a date for the hearing, the stopwatch will be turned on. Under the agreement, revoking this clause could break up the government and send us all into another election. There’s an assumption that Netanyahu wants the court to give him an excuse to break up the government.

This week in the Knesset, in front of the cameras, he was asked if he undertakes to vacate his post for Gantz in November 2021, as was signed in the coalition agreement and enshrined in law. His answer was “we set the terms under which the agreement will be upheld and under which it won’t be upheld.” His eyes flitted to the left, to Sara, who looked away. In other words, don’t count on it.

Netanyahu held interesting late-night conversations with Knesset members and ministers who wanted to hear his verdict on their political careers. One said he spent sleepless nights after being told by Netanyahu’s office “to keep your phone on” – then the phone rang at 3 A.M. The voice on the other side ordered him to be available to the prime minister’s summons at a half hour’s notice.

Benjamin Netanyahu and Likud's Nir Barkat at a meeting in Tel Aviv, February 2020.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

The nightmare most Likud legislators underwent scarred them. “I divide my career in two,” one of them told me, a senior politician. “All the years I accumulated and this past week.”

Netanyahu tried to compensate the disappointed party members with a promise to be ministers after the rotation. The instinctive response was no. Who knows him better than they do? It’s hard to be a creditor to a man without a credit card. With a guy like that, you better use cash.

Yoav Gallant, a reserve major general and army chief for a moment, was appointed education minister. There’s no logic to that other than Netanyahu’s desire to put Gallant in a position of power against Gallant’s nemesis, Gabi Ashkenazi, while trying to revive the Harpaz affair to besmirch Mendelblit.

Nir Barkat, who was ready to bet the house on getting the education portfolio, didn’t get it. Eli Cohen, a refugee from the center-right Kulanu party, once a successful businessman who handled economic matters during his five years in politics, was appointed to the fictitious role of intelligence minister.

Avi Dichter, who has specialized in intelligence his entire adult life, in the Shin Bet security service, the cabinet and the Knesset, did well in the Likud primary, but he was left out of the cabinet. Tzipi Hotovely, the representative of religious Zionism toward the top of Likud’s ranks, was told she’d be sent to London.

Gideon Sa’ar and Gilad Erdan, both winners of party primaries, received restraining orders. Sa’ar, who dared challenge the emperor, was sent to the backbenches. Erdan, who as public security minister didn’t thwart the investigations into Netanyahu, was sent to the United States. Few appointments make any sense: Yisrael Katz to the Finance Ministry, Yariv Levin as Knesset speaker, Yuli Edelstein as health minister. Good health to them all.

“Bibi did a great job,” an observer said. “He took everybody he hates – Yair Lapid, Avigdor Lieberman, Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked – and threw them into the opposition. He banished, belittled or humiliated Likudniks of stature – Sa’ar, Erdan and Barkat. Yisrael Katz he sent to the treasury to get scalded there.

“His spineless lackeys, those who will stop at nothing to please him like Miri Regev, Ohana and Amsalem, he greased with powerful portfolios. For him this is a dream government, and let everybody else go jump in a lake.”

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