Israel’s rude awakening as pro-Netanyahu camp ups the rhetoric
Israeli politics is never short of dramatic twists and turns, but last week, when much of the country was coping with its post-Passover celebration blues, a rude awakening saw two political dramas take place simultaneously and only a few streets away from each other in Jerusalem.
In one, a procession of members of the Knesset, each representing their respective parties, headed to the Israeli president’s residence to recommend to Reuven Rivlin their competing choices for him to nominate as prime minister-designate with the chance to form a coalition. The other drama was the opening of the evidentiary stage in the corruption trial of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is facing three cases of bribery, fraud and breach of trust that, if upheld, might well land him a jail sentence. These two dramas, though separate affairs, are closely interwoven and could have an immeasurable impact on the future of Israel’s political system, society and the very nature of its democracy.
The first week of this stage of Netanyahu’s trial was fascinating and disturbing in equal measure. The opening exchanges in the Jerusalem District Court were quite chilling, in terms of the choreography as much as the opening statement by lead prosecutor Liat Ben-Ari. She was followed by the testimony of one of the prosecution’s star witnesses, Ilan Yeshua, the former CEO of Walla, a leading news website. Both outlined what is alleged to be a corrupt web of relations between Netanyahu and the owners of Walla, Iris and Shaul Elovitch. This case, known as Case 4000, is just one of the three corruption cases Netanyahu faces.
These are very early days in Netanyahu’s trial and, like any other defendant, he enjoys the presumption of innocence; even though, throughout the entire legal process, the Israeli prime minister has enjoyed privileges that no other suspect, let alone someone indicted for such serious crimes, has ever been granted. Still, Netanyahu and his political cabal, in their threatening behavior toward the prosecutors and judges, are behaving more like an organized crime gang than elected representatives entrusted with upholding law and order. This is no ordinary trial and, whether you are a dyed-in-the-wool Netanyahu devotee or a diehard detractor, the sight of Israel’s leader standing in the dock is a sorrowful one for the entire country.
As much as one always wishes anyone accused of a crime to be fairly tried, Netanyahu’s behavior both inside and outside the courtroom hardly merits any sympathy, and even less another single day in power.
Ben-Ari appeared very confident of Netanyahu’s guilt as she detailed how the prime minister, having been elected by the people to serve them with their best interests at heart, had been more concerned with helping the Elovitch family business clinch deals worth hundreds of millions of shekels in exchange for favorable coverage on a news website they owned and controlled. If there is even a grain of truth in that, it should worry anyone who cares for the freedom and objectivity of the media. She unequivocally told the judges: “The relationship between Netanyahu and the (co-) defendants became currency, something that could be traded… This currency could distort a public servant’s judgment.”
These are very early days in Netanyahu’s trial and, like any other defendant, he enjoys the presumption of innocence.
The chief prosecutor’s opening remarks were followed by days of evidence from Yeshua, which cast aspersions on both the integrity of the current Israeli prime minister and equally, if not more so, his judgment. That the leader of a country inundated with existential issues was so obsessed with every single online post relating to him or his family should worry those whose lives are affected by his decisions.
Yeshua’s testimony told a story of how those in possession of great wealth allegedly exploited the vulnerabilities and fragilities of the Netanyahu family, while Netanyahu in return preyed on the greed of media moguls for his personal benefit by abusing his ministerial position. This should keep all Israelis awake at night because, if true — and this testimony was delivered under oath — it undermines the credibility and veracity of both the business and the media sectors.
Netanyahu’s corruption trial might only be in its infancy, but nevertheless he should be barred from holding any official position for the duration of his trial, and probably in perpetuity, for abusing his position to viciously and venomously attack and undermine the justice system, and by doing so create division and disruption among the people.
His dismissive body language in court could be interpreted mainly as disrespect and arrogance. However, much worse was that, on the same day as the first witness took the stand, Netanyahu delivered a speech live to the domestic and international media in which he shamelessly claimed: “The entire proceeding against me was an abuse of the destructive power the prosecution holds.” He also referred to his trial as a “charade.” And if this was not enough of an incitement against those entrusted with upholding the rule of law, he accused the state prosecution of an “attempted coup.”
Added to this were protests outside the court against the state prosecutor. One of the demonstrators was a newly elected Likud MK, handpicked by the prime minister, who shouted loudly that it was not Netanyahu who was on trial but the state prosecutor. Put all these aspects together and the picture emerges of an anti-democratic group laying the ground to either stop the trial or trigger an uprising among its base should Netanyahu be convicted.
Throughout the four years of investigations and legal proceedings, Netanyahu, his family and his close circle of supporters have done everything in their power to undermine the justice system. In the process, they have lost any shred of integrity, let alone any grip on reality. They are clearly the ones staging a protracted coup against a legitimate state institution. Their actions could lead to a dangerous breakdown in society and the use of violence against those who oppose the prime minister. If this should happen, it is Netanyahu who must bear the responsibility for a crime even more severe than the ones he is already on trial for.
• Yossi Mekelberg is professor of international relations and an associate fellow of the MENA Program at Chatham House. He is a regular contributor to the international written and electronic media.