Israelis deeply divided over Netanyahu trial. It could not have been otherwise

PM’s allies claim the right-wing and the marginalized are in the dock with him; opponents say the rule of law is at stake; come the day, how will half the country handle defeat?

Haviv Rettig Gur

Haviv Rettig Gur is The Times of Israel's senior analyst.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, center, is flanked by Likud lawmakers at the party's post-election event in Tel Aviv, on March 2, 2020. (Gili Yaari/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, center, is flanked by Likud lawmakers at the party's post-election event in Tel Aviv, on March 2, 2020. (Gili Yaari/Flash90)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has quite the busy day on Sunday.

At 11 a.m., the 35th Government gathered in Chagall Hall in the Knesset for its first regular cabinet meeting. On the agenda: establishing the powerful cabinet committees that will deal with national security and the coronavirus crisis; appointing eight new deputy ministers; formally establishing the ministries of “settlement affairs” and “water resources” as well as establishing the “Alternate Prime Minister’s Office” for rival-turned-partner Benny Gantz (though voting to form these offices was apparently delayed at the least minute due to budgetary issues).

It’s not all cabinet assignments, of course. Item 10 refers to “Limiting the authorization for the Shin Bet to assist in the national effort to limit the spread of the novel coronavirus pathogen — extension and amendment of cabinet decisions.” The government will vote to extend in time, but limit in scope, the internal security agency’s authority to track Israelis for the purpose of keeping tabs on the spread of the virus.

Then there’s the roughly NIS 800 million ($226 million) the cabinet will be approving for the Jerusalem municipality to offset the capital’s enormous deficit.

A busy day, and no wonder. Netanyahu has a new government to get underway, a coronavirus-wracked economy to rehabilitate, a country to run.

Israel’s 35th government holds a cabinet meeting while keeping social distancing regulations at the Knesset, on May 17, 2020. (Alex Kolomoisky/POOL)

But at 3 p.m. that busy agenda would be put on hold. Netanyahu would arrive at the Jerusalem District Court to hear the criminal charges against him and formally confirm to the court that he understands them. It is the moment of legal ritual that will officially launch the first-ever trial of a sitting Israeli prime minister.

That juxtaposition — Netanyahu the confident helmsman of the ship of state and Netanyahu the defendant in three corruption cases — has accompanied the prime minister since his first questioning by police in January 2017.

In recent months, as the trial drew closer, and especially since the formal announcement in November that he would be indicted, Netanyahu has tried to bridge that gap, to reclaim his dignity and buttress his political support for the bruising legal fight ahead.

His principal means has been a campaign focused on two enormous claims. The first: He and his supporters have accused his accusers — the state prosecution, police and, in recent weeks, judges in his trial — of a conspiracy to remove him from power using false charges.

“Many people worked very hard, on the left and in the media, you did everything to get that picture tomorrow [Sunday] of the prime minister in a courtroom,” claimed Likud MK Miki Zohar, speaking to Channel 12’s “Meet the Press” on Saturday night. “You couldn’t beat him at the ballot box, so you took a more twisted path. The police and the prosecution work for you, it was a ‘full-time job.’ You worked in perfect synergy,” he said.

Supporters of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a rally held under the banner ‘protesting the coup’ in Tel Aviv, on November 26, 2019. (Jack Guez/AFP)

That narrative now dominates the coverage of the trial in right-wing media. Channel 20 has called its Sunday afternoon broadcast of the opening of the trial “The Attempted Ouster.” Those words will headline and frame the broadcast, with the channel’s rhetoric over the weekend making clear that it intends to toe the line unquestioningly in Netanyahu’s favor throughout the day.

‘Hegemonies everywhere’

But there is a second and deeper claim Netanyahu has made about his trial, and that too will come to a head on its opening day.

On Thursday, in an extraordinary moment of television, Channel 13 Haredi affairs analyst Dr. Avishay Ben Haim gave voice to this claim, explaining during a broadcast why he viewed the Netanyahu trial as “my trial.”

Ben Haim wrote his doctorate on Shas spiritual leader Rabbi Ovadia Yosef and has helped coin the term “Second Israel” to describe long-marginalized Mizrahi (or “Eastern”) Jewish communities kept far from the centers of political and economic power by an Ashkenazi elite in the first decades of Israel’s existence. Ben Haim is a fervent supporter of secular, Ashkenazi Netanyahu, describing him as the “elitist champion” that Second Israel has selected to take its fight to the rest of the Ashkenazi elite.

“The Netanyahu trial isn’t actually a legal event,” he explained in the widely seen broadcast, “but a social one. It is a climactic moment in the hegemony’s effort to weaken the political system in order to diminish the right of Israelis who don’t accept its authority and values to participate in democracy.”

Sephardi Chief Rabbi of Jerusalem Rabbi Shlomo Amar, Rabbi Yechiel Abuchatzeira and rabbis from the Or Hashravi Yeshiva in Meron take part in a special prayer to stop the coronavirus pandemic, at the Rashbi gravesite in Meron, northern Israel, March 9, 2020. (David Cohen/Flash90)

“I’ve discussed in the past the process by which Second Israel’s various attempts to participate in the country’s democratic life, from Wadi Salib to the Yemenite children to Shas, were criminalized. All were depicted as a criminal event. But it didn’t end there. Hegemonies everywhere fight the forces that threaten their rule, and sometimes respond with instinctive belligerence.

“The Netanyahu trial must be placed, therefore, in a broad historical context, not a legal context but a social one. In this sense, the Netanyahu trial isn’t his private trial, but mine too. So in this sense, and only in this sense, on Sunday it isn’t Netanyahu who goes on trial, but me. On Sunday my trial begins. A trial begins against me and against many, many who understand and feel that this isn’t a legal struggle whose goal is justice, but a hegemonic struggle whose goal is injustice.”

Netanyahu shared a video of Ben Haim’s broadcast on his Twitter account.

The narrative was a recurring theme. “They’re not persecuting me, they’re persecuting us,” read a popular election poster quoting Netanyahu, which has been shared by the premier’s supporters on social media in recent days.

As Public Security Minister Amir Ohana, one of Netanyahu’s most outspoken supporters in the Likud ranks (and the child of Moroccan Jewish immigrants), told Channel 12 on Saturday, “Likud voters don’t believe the state prosecution’s thesis. The injustice is being done to the right wing, it is they who are on trial tomorrow.”

Two distinct but intertwined threads make up Netanyahu’s effort to frame the story of his trial for his supporters: a leftist clique is attempting to subvert the will of the people — and its efforts amount to the latest bid by the Ashkenazi elite to deny Mizrahi Jews their rightful place at the table.

OJ Simpson and Aryeh Deri

Netanyahu appears to genuinely believe he is innocent. Needless to say, he has not yet had his day in court, and his supporters include respected legal scholars who argue that some of the charges he faces are worryingly innovative and even dangerous to Israeli democracy.

But the merits of his legal case aren’t his main message to his supporters. As he works to frame the narrative of his trial, his central argument centers on his claim to represent a downtrodden collective and that his legal troubles are part of their broader struggle.

The Jerusalem District Court seen on January 28, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

It’s a strategy that has drawn no shortage of anxiety from various quarters, including claims that Netanyahu was seeking to spark a “civil war,” and fears for the safety of his prosecutors and judges, who received police protection this week.

Opposition leader MK Yair Lapid warned on Twitter that Netanyahu was sending Likud ministers to make media appearances in which “one after another…[they] threaten the judges and incite with violent rhetoric against law enforcement authorities. That’s the only attempted coup underway here. Netanyahu and Gantz — it is your duty to come out against that, and to clarify that you won’t allow any harm to come to Mandelblit or the court.”

But Netanyahu is unlikely to make any such “clarification” or distance himself from the campaign that seeks to delegitimize the trial. He has two excellent reasons for claiming he is the unjustly tormented representative of the downtrodden masses of Israeli society. The first reason: that type of narrative is how his voters think. The second: it’s how everyone else thinks, too.

The American pollster Mark Mellman recently tried to explain why many Democrats chose Joe Biden over Bernie Sanders despite agreeing with Sanders on the issues, or at least on Sanders’s signature issue of healthcare. In an op-ed focused on the Sanders-Biden primary race (with a brief but fascinating foray into a gun-control initiative in Nevada), Mellman articulated a fundamental truth about political behavior — everyone’s political behavior, whether you’re Israeli or American, left-wing or right-wing.

“Despite the fairy tale with which we are raised,” he wrote, “while issues are the language we speak in campaigns, they’re rarely the decisive factor in elections.”

Former Vice President Joe Biden gestures as Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) listens during the Democratic presidential primary debate at Loyola Marymount University on December 19, 2019, in Los Angeles, California. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images/AFP)

Voters don’t vote on issues, even when they explain their choices after the fact by referring to those issues. “Voters often don’t know the candidates’ positions, don’t understand the issues and don’t care enough about most of them to let issues decide their votes.”

So what do they vote on?

“More often voters cast their ballots based on identity (the candidates’ and the voters’), real world circumstances and emotional connection.”

There’s plenty of academic research on this point, but the testimony of prominent political campaigners may be more convincing than that of academics. The former got to where they are by consistently proving they can influence how large groups of people actually vote.

Mellman, like all campaign strategists with at least one campaign under their belt, knows a basic truth: Political behavior flows not from policy agreement but from intuitive identification. Leaders, parties and activists don’t win support through careful and reasoned analysis, but by forging channels of emotional investment and affinity.

Israelis protest in support of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and against the Israeli legal system in Tel Aviv, December 30, 2019. (Flash90)

That basic fact doesn’t change when social and political identities intersect with the criminal justice system.

In 1995, during the dramatic murder trial in Los Angeles of former football great OJ Simpson, opinion about his guilt was divided along lines of racial identity. About 20 percent of black Americans thought he was guilty; among white Americans it was around 70%.

By 2016, when the trial no longer spoke as keenly to black Americans about their identity and place in America, the percentage who were convinced of his guilt had risen by over 30 points.

Similarly, Bill Clinton’s impeachment did not result in any significant drop in support among his Democratic voters. Those who supported him distrusted the Republican case against him; those who did not support him believed that case.

And closer to home, when Shas leader Aryeh Deri was sentenced to prison in 2000 for a bribery conviction, over 80% of Shas voters believed him when he insisted the Israeli judiciary was systematically prejudiced against him for his Sephardi and Haredi identity.

Shas party chairman and Minister of Interior Affairs Aryeh Deri (L) and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a ceremony marking the six year anniversary of death of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, at the Knesset, November 4, 2019. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

So it is with Netanyahu and his trial.

On November 17, shortly after Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit announced he would indict the prime minister, Netanyahu delivered a speech on national television accusing police investigators and state prosecutors of an “attempted coup.”

The Israel Democracy Institute then polled Israelis about his claim and discovered that Israelis’ political preferences tracked their view of Netanyahu’s legal troubles almost perfectly.

The poll, carried out November 24-26, asked the following question: “In your opinion, was Netanyahu right or wrong when he said in his speech after the attorney general’s decision became public that the legal process in his case was ‘tainted,’ that is, that its purpose was to remove him from power?”

A majority of Israelis, 52%, rejected Netanyahu’s accusation. Over a third, 36.5%, agreed with the prime minister. (Among Jews the gap shrinks to 47% and 41% respectively.)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu presenting the 35th government of Israel to the Knesset, May 17, 2020. (Knesset/Kobi Gideon)

Far more interesting was the poll’s breakdown by political views, based on self-reported votes in the election the previous month, on September 17.

Among Likud voters, 73% agreed with Netanyahu that law enforcement authorities had a political motive for pursuing him. Among Blue and White voters the figure was 3%.

Stepping beyond the scope of Likud and its main competitor (at the time) Blue and White, one finds similar views about Netanyahu’s criminality among the broader pro- and anti-Netanyahu blocs.

Among United Torah Judaism, Shas and Yamina voters, whose parties backed Netanyahu as a single religious-right bloc, 88.5%, 68% and 61%, respectively, agreed with Netanyahu.

On the other side of the aisle, voters for parties opposed to Netanyahu disagreed just as comprehensively. Labor-Gesher voters saw 19% agree with Netanyahu, 7% among Arab Joint List voters, and not a single respondent from among Democratic Camp-Meretz voters.

In this April 25, 2020 photo, demonstrators wearing protective face masks amid concerns over the country’s coronavirus outbreak hang a banner showing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during “Black Flag” protest against Netanyahu and government corruption, at Rabin Square in Tel Aviv, Israel. (AP Photo/Oded Balilty)

But the wildcard that lays bare the power of political identification is the startling figure for Yisrael Beytenu voters. Yisrael Beytenu is a right-wing party that spent the past year in opposition to Netanyahu, but whose leader Avigdor Liberman had previously spent 17 years battling various corruption investigations and railing at the politicization of the state prosecution. Yet the party’s voters appeared to have experienced a remarkable turnaround when it came to Netanyahu; just 15% agreed with Netanyahu that his trial was compromised.

The trial that begins Sunday will not end any time soon. Preliminary arguments alone are expected to stretch for many months. Over 300 witnesses are named in the indictment. That’s plenty of opportunity for the rhetoric surrounding the events in the courtroom to grow heated, for emotions to reach a fever pitch.

Likud ministers have vowed to be in attendance to offer their support to their embattled leader. Likud activists have boasted of a fleet of 50 buses that will ferry hundreds of supporters to the courthouse to protest the “unjust show trial.”

Yet the loyalty Netanyahu’s supporters will likely show him throughout the trial, and his explicit appeal to that loyalty to shore up his political base, are not a rebellion against the system, as some fear. They are how democratic societies deal with such clashes of identity and justice. Both camps have been flippant about the other’s concerns, the pro-Netanyahu camp seeing conspiracies behind any suggestion Netanyahu may have something to answer for, and the prime minister’s detractors convinced any questioning of the validity of a prosecutor’s argument are a conspiracy in the other direction seeking to subvert the rule of law.

Israeli democracy is not being tested by the current clash of narratives and identities. The capacity to mediate such clashes without violence or oppression is the heart and soul of democracy. The current debate, however frenzied it may sometimes seem, is how a successful democracy behaves in such trying moments.

The real test will come only at the end of the judicial process, in the moment after the final decision is handed down from the final appeal, when it comes time for half the country to accept the bitter fact that it has lost, and to choose, as democrats must, to accept the verdict, come what may.

Most Popular
read more: