Analysis: Bibi has his day in court

After months of delays and legal ducking and diving, Benjamin Netanyahu finally appeared in court this week to face a raft of corruption charges.

Israel’s longest-serving premier is also the first incumbent prime minister to go on trial.

Sunday’s court appearance by Netanyahu was a formality in which he was asked only whether he understood the charges against him. However, the prime minister brought a characteristic dash of drama when, surrounded by Likud loyalists, he delivered a lengthy televised attack on police, prosecutors, the media and his political opponents before entering the Jerusalem District Court.

“Elements in the police and State Attorney’s Office banded together with left-wing journalists… to fabricate baseless cases against me,” the prime minister claimed. “The goal is to oust a strong right-wing prime minister and to banish the right-wing camp from leadership of the country for many years.”

Railing against the “band of anyone-but-Bibi”, Netanyahu went on to claim that the campaign against him had sought to interfere with the three elections which have occurred in Israel over the past year. To back up his charges, he cited the police recommendation that charges be brought against him before the April 2019 elections and attorney general Avichai Mandelblit’s decision to formally indict him last November in the run-up to March’s poll.

“I’m not a poodle … and therefore they need to remove me by any means,” Netanyahu charged, while noting that his party’s performance in the March general election was tantamount to a “vote of confidence” in him.

After the hearing, Netanyahu kept up the attack, arguing on twitter: “What is on trial today is the attempt to thwart the will of the people: To bring us down, the nationalist camp, by way of fabricated cases. With your help, and the help of God, I will continue to fight.”

An Israeli prime minister can remain in office until a final conviction and all appeals – including those to the Supreme Court – are exhausted.

The trial is expected to take more than a year, and Netanyahu himself may not have to return to court for many months while preliminary arguments are made. Netanyahu will, though, have to be in court during his own testimony and when he faces cross-examination. The prime minister is not yet required to enter a formal “not guilty” plea and can seek a plea bargain at any stage. However, the decision whether to grant a plea bargain rests with the attorney general and the prime minister has repeatedly insisted he won’t seek such a deal.

Netanyahu’s predecessor, Ehud Olmert, resigned as prime minister in 2009 before he was formally indicted on corruption charges.

“A horror show by a frightened man”

Netanyahu’s comments on Sunday provoked outrage among his political opponents. Yair Lapid, the leader of the opposition, said they underlined why he should not have been allowed to continue serving as prime minister while on trial. “I have been saying for more than 18 months that someone who sits on the defendant’s bench cannot also be the prime minister. Today we got a demonstration why that principle is correct. It was a horror show by a frightened man who is telling Israel’s citizens that they cannot trust anything here, with followers standing behind him and saying amen,” Lapid said.

Avigdor Liberman, a former foreign minister under Netanyahu and leader of the right-wing Yisrael Beitenu party, similarly attacked the prime minister, and dismissed the notion of a left-wing plot against him. “He has no limits. Netanyahu is ready to drag the people of Israel into civil war to escape personal distress,” Liberman suggested.

However, Benny Gantz, former opposition leader and now deputy prime minister in Netanyahu’s unity government, issued a muted statement which attempted to defend the judiciary.

“Just like every citizen, the prime minister too has the presumption of innocence, and I am sure that the justice system will give him a fair trial,” Gantz tweeted. “I again emphasise that my colleagues and I have full faith in the justice system and law enforcement,” he suggested. “At this time, perhaps more than ever, as a state and a society, we must seek unity and reconciliation, for the sake of the country and all of its citizens.”

As opposition leader, Gantz had repeatedly pledged not to serve alongside Netanyahu while he faced criminal charges. However, in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic and, with March’s election producing another deadlocked result, Gantz agreed to serve in a unity government. He currently serves as defence minister and will take over the premiership from Netanyahu in November 2021.

Gantz’s decision to form a coalition with Netanyahu provoked a split in the centrist Blue and White alliance, with Gantz’s former allies Lapid and Moshe Ya’alon deciding to opt to remain in opposition. Ya’alon accused Gantz of having “joined the order of Trappists” by failing to condemn Netanyahu’s remarks.

Netanyahu also came under fire this week from justices on Israel’s Supreme Court. It ruled last month that there was no legal basis to prevent an individual under indictment from serving as prime minister. However, the justices showed their concerns in a full response issued yesterday to the petitions which had sought to prevent Netanyahu forming a new government,. “The reality in which a criminal suspect forms a government and leads it reflects a social crisis and moral failure of society and of Israel’s political system,” Judge Menahem (Meni) Mazuz wrote. Other justices issued similar words of condemnation of Netanyahu.

Netanyahu’s attack on Sunday was also strongly condemned by elements of the Israeli media. “In his all-out, full frontal assault on investigators and prosecutors, Netanyahu showed once again that he has no more brakes or boundaries,” argued Haaretz columnist Chemi Shalev. “At the bottom of the barrel, Netanyahu just keeps on digging. The intolerable, inconceivable and reprehensible don’t even qualify as warning signs anymore: Netanyahu will break any rule, nuke any norm, breach any promise, tell any lie, destroy any rival, ignore any law and erode any foundation of democracy to save his skin and stay in power.”

David Horovitz, editor of the Times of Israel, called Netanyahu’s comments a “brilliantly calculated assertion of innocence and victimhood”, which was also “demonstrably ridiculous”. “The police chief who oversaw the investigations, Netanyahu’s own appointee Roni Alsheich, a former senior Shin Bet officer who grew up in the settlement of Kiryat Arba — no leftist, he — concluded that the prime minister should be charged,” Horovitz wrote in an op-ed. “The attorney general — a former IDF chief advocate general, and Netanyahu’s own former cabinet secretary, appointed to the top legal position by Netanyahu — reached the same conclusion.”

In Yedioth Ahronoth, Nahum Barnea suggested that the support Netanyahu received outside the courthouse from Likud MKs and supporters resembled a cult. “Israel has known periods of personality cults before. [David] Ben Gurion enjoyed this kind of adulation in the state’s early years; [Menachem] Begin enjoyed it among his public. Netanyahu was able to intensify the cult and to broaden it. He was able to dismantle the rage, frustration and social alienation and to reassemble it around himself.”

The charges

The charges against Netanyahu were well-known and had been long anticipated even before Mandelblit announced his decision to indict the prime minister last year.

In the first, so-called “Case 1000”, Netanyahu is accused of accepting gifts – including champagne, cigars and jewellery – totalling around £300,000 from wealthy businessmen in return for advancing their interests.

In the second case, “Case 2000”, he is accused of bribing Arnon Mozes, the owner of the Yediot Ahronot newspaper, and offering to help restrict the circulation of its rival, Israel Hayom, in return for better coverage. Israel Hayom is owned by the US billionaire and strong Netanyahu supporter Sheldon Adelson. Netanyahu and Mozes, the indictment reads, “recognised that the one had the ability to promote the other’s interests”.

The third and most serious case, “Case 4000”, involves accusations that Netanyahu used his position to advance the interests of Bezeq, Israel’s largest telecommunications company. Police suspect that Shaul Elovitch, owner of the Walla news site and a key shareholder of Bezeq, swayed coverage of Netanyahu on the news site in exchange for regulatory benefits for Bezeq. The prime minister served as acting communications minister until May 2017. The indictment suggested that the relationship between the two men was “based on give and take”,and stated that Elovitch had gained benefits of $500m between 2012-17 thanks to Netanyahu’s actions, while Walla had “published [Netanyahu’s] political messages”.

Mandelblit – who said in November that he acted with “a heavy heart but wholeheartedly” – indicted Netanyahu with fraud and breach of trust in all three cases, with a charge of bribery added in “Case 4000”. Netanyahu denies all the charges against him.

Standing trial alongside Netanyahu are Mozes, Elovitch and Elovitch’s wife, Iris Elovitch.

The key players

The three judges who will decide Netanyahu’s fate are led by Rivka Friedman-Feldman, widely considered an independent-minded judge who was one of the panel which convicted Olmert; Moshe Bar-Am, an expert in cases involving serious crime; and Oded Shaham, who presided over cabinet minister Tzachi Hanegbi’s trial for breach of trust in 2010.

Among the key witnesses against Netanyahu are his former chief of staff and one-time confidant Ari Harow. A police investigation into Harow proved pivotal in uncovering some of the evidence police used to indict Netanyahu in Cases 1000 and 2000. Three years ago, Harow, facing charges of bribery, fraud and money laundering, signed an agreement with prosecutors and turned state’s evidence.

Another former close Netanyahu aide and associate, Nir Hefetz, will also take the witness stand against the prime minister. Hefetz, who served as a media adviser and spokesperson for Netanyahu, was arrested by police in connection with Case 4000. He, too, turned state’s evidence and gave investigators correspondence and recordings that involved Netanyahu.

Also appearing as a witness will be Shlomo Fiber, a close associate of Netanyahu’s who served as Communications Ministry director general when the events in Case 4000 allegedly occurred.

However, those hoping the case may lead to Netanyahu’s political downfall should not hold their breaths. After he was indicted, it took nine years before Olmert finally saw the inside of a prison cell.