David Horovitz is the founding editor of The Times of Israel. He is the author of "Still Life with Bombers" (2004) and "A Little Too Close to God" (2000), and co-author of "Shalom Friend: The Life and Legacy of Yitzhak Rabin" (1996). He previously edited The Jerusalem Post (2004-2011) and The Jerusalem Report (1998-2004).
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, surrounded by Likud lawmakers, gives a televised statement before the start of his corruption trial at the Jerusalem District Court on May 24, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Speaking to the cameras moments before entering the Jerusalem District Court room in which he is now on trial for corruption, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu unleashed a furious assault on his accusers — insisting that the charges against him are absurd and fabricated, that he is the victim of an attempted political coup by the police, the state prosecutors, the left and the media, and that the entire skewed process is designed to remove him, and the right-wing camp he leads, from power for years to come.
Almost all of what he said on Sunday afternoon he has said before, in similar speeches broadcast live into the nation’s living rooms by that allegedly biased and hostile media over the past two years: That the coup attempt is a consequence of the left’s failure to remove him from power at the ballot box for a decade; that his police investigators are corrupt; that the state prosecutors have invented a crime especially for him that is on no democracy’s lawbooks — that of attaining favorable media coverage; that Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit is weak or is being extorted because he has something to hide; that the public knows all this, knows the truth. And, finally, that he will emerge vindicated and continue to lead Israel.
What was unprecedented, of course, was the setting. This time Netanyahu was speaking shortly before placing his fate in the hands of District Court judges Rivka Friedman-Feldman, Moshe Bar-Am and Oded Shaham.
What was also new was that Netanyahu was surrounded by Likud party colleagues, including several ministers, sworn in to his new cabinet just last week, and fresh from their first full-scale cabinet meeting on Sunday morning.
Demonstrating their solidarity with the legally embattled prime minister by placing themselves firmly in camera shot alongside him — dutifully wearing their COVID-19 masks — were Israel Katz, the new finance minister, Miri Regev (transportation), Yoav Gallant (education), David Amsalem (liaison between the government and the Knesset), Amir Ohana (public security), Eli Cohen (intelligence), and Tzachi Hanegbi (evidently overcoming his disappointment at being offered only a minister without portfolio slot). Even Nir Barkat, the former Jerusalem mayor who was surprisingly left out of the cabinet altogether by Netanyahu, was there to show his support.
As much as the familiar mix of offense and defense, grievance and determination, in Netanyahu’s prepared speech, that scene — of the prime minister heading into a courtroom to face corruption charges, escorted by a goodly proportion of the country’s most senior political figures, masked and silent around him — underlined the prime minister’s indomitable leadership of his political camp, and the spectacularly divisive period Israel has now entered.
Netanyahu, who was part of the chorus successfully urging prime ministerial predecessor Ehud Olmert to resign when he was under investigation more than a decade ago, has chosen to eschew the advice he issued then and fight to clear his name, Silvio Berlusconi-style, while still holding office. And he has broadened the battle from the State of Israel versus Benjamin Netanyahu to, ostensibly, the State of Israel versus much of the Israeli government — as he put it, the strong, patriotic, pro-annexation Israeli right.
Arrayed at his side, those silent Likud colleagues, reportedly ordered by the Prime Minister’s Office to turn out, demonstrated their acquiescence in this strategy. (Only five of Likud’s 13 ministers dared stay away.)
So, too, to some extent did Netanyahu’s new partner, the “alternate prime minister” and Blue and White leader Benny Gantz, whose support was vital to Netanyahu’s success in mustering his new coalition. In his public remarks at Sunday’s cabinet meeting, Gantz reiterated some of his familiar comments about the imperatives for national unity and reconciliation, but made no mention of the imminent opening of Netanyahu’s trial.
Only after Netanyahu’s incendiary pre-hearing speech did Gantz issue a second statement, highlighting that Netanyahu retains the presumption of innocence, and stressing his confidence that the prime minister will be treated justly. “I am certain that the judicial system will hold a fair trial,” said Gantz. “I stress that my colleagues and I have complete faith in the judicial system and in law enforcement.”
Gantz did not specify whom he meant by “my colleagues and I.”
Strikingly, and in contrast to several previous occasions when he has discussed his legal battles, Netanyahu in his lengthy preemptive declaration of innocence chose not to specify that he, too, retains his confidence in the judges now hearing his case. For a prime minister who chooses his words with such care, there was a message to the watching public, too, in that omission.