Seasoned politician that he is, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu understood the damage that a photo of him sitting solemnly on the defendants’ bench at the opening hearing of his corruption trial Sunday would have caused to his public image moving forward.
So it was no accident that during the brief period in which photographers were allowed inside Jerusalem District Court hall 317, the premier spent the entire time standing, conversing with his attorney.
In fact, the photographers inside were unable to snap even a full facial expression, as Netanyahu conveniently kept his blue surgical mask on the entire time. Earlier, he had no problem taking if off, including to pose defiantly, surrounded by 14 of his most loyal Likud lawmakers, who cleared their schedules in order to accompany the prime minister up the courthouse steps on Salah a-Din Street.
That photo, taken inside adjacent chambers moments before Netanyahu entered hall 317, was blasted out to the media by his spokespeople and posted on his Twitter account. It was the picture they hoped would combat whatever would be snapped in the next room over, driving home the talking point — reiterated by the prime minister and his surrogates throughout the afternoon — that it was not just Netanyahu on the defendants’s bench, but also the entire right, “the people” themselves.
One of the premier’s staunchest allies, Transportation Minister Miri Regev, said as much to a crowd of hundreds of Netanyahu supporters who tightly packed Salah a-Din Street — coronavirus be damned — in a boisterous demonstration of support for Netanyahu that began hours before he even turned up.
“When Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu arrives, I want you to tell him, ‘You will never walk alone,'” Regev shouted into a megaphone in front of the cheering, Israeli flag-waving Likud activists.
“We’re all on trial today,” responded one of the protesters.
If the photo of the prime minister flanked by Likud MKs did not speak loudly enough, Netanyahu fine-tuned the message in a fiery statement to the press shortly thereafter.
“Elements in the police and State Attorney’s Office banded together with left-wing journalists… to fabricate baseless cases against me,” he charged from a podium set up in the middle of the third-floor hallway of the courthouse. “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.”
His subsequent call for the proceedings against him to be broadcast live further played into his message — what better way to ensure his supporters feel that they too are on trial than to give them access to it from their own homes?
The press statement would be the last clear glimpse the media would get of the prime minister before he entered the courtroom with his mask on.
One photo of the indicted, standing prime minister peering back at the cameras with two of the trial’s judges and a court stenographer in the background was snapped and quickly disseminated by the media as the hearing was called to order. But during the 50 minutes that ensued, the premier seemed careful never to look back.
After the photographers left the room, Netanyahu took his seat on the defendants’ bench, which, to his favor, looked no different from the half-dozen other benches in the austere room, which seemed almost too small for the historic nature of the hearing it was hosting.
In a live video feed piped out to journalists, he could be seen sitting up straight with his legs crossed and back to the camera for the rest of the hearing, only standing up once to state, “Yes, your honor,” when Judge Rivka Friedman-Feldman asked if he had read and understood the charges against him.
Even this moment — the only time Netanyahu spoke during the session — passed rather anticlimactically and worked in his favor. The well over 100 reporters covering the trial had been placed in various chambers throughout the courthouse, where TVs were set up with the live feed of the hearing. But most of them had problems with the sound in the early, crucial moments of the session. During that time, the barely audible court proceedings were drowned out by a combination of frustrated reporters, swearing not so quietly under their breaths about the court administration’s ill preparedness, and the loud Mizrahi music playing outside at the pro-Netanyahu rally.
For the remainder of the session, Netanyahu sat still as his lawyer and the attorneys for the three other defendants in the room — Shaul Elovitch, Iris Elovitch and Arnon Mozes — explained why they needed as long as six months to review the evidence against their clients before the trial could get underway.
As Sunday’s hearing was largely procedural, there was just about no talk of the three cases that required the four suspects to appear in court.
Case 1000 involves accusations that Netanyahu received gifts and benefits from billionaire benefactors including Israeli-born Hollywood producer Arnon Milchan, in exchange for favors.
Case 2000 centers on allegations that Netanyahu agreed with Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper publisher Mozes to weaken the circulation of a rival daily in return for more favorable coverage from Yedioth.
Case 4000, considered the most serious of the three, involves accusations that Netanyahu advanced regulatory decisions that benefited Shaul Elovitch, the controlling shareholder in the Bezeq telecom giant, in exchange for positive coverage from the Elovitch-owned Walla news site.
Netanyahu has been charged with seven counts: bribery, fraud and breach of trust in Case 4000, and fraud and breach of trust in both cases 1000 and 2000.
But with Sunday’s hearing so devoid of substance, the day became about establishing a narrative. And for Netanyahu, that meant focusing on what was happening outside the courtroom, rather than inside of it.