Pics and it didn’t happen: 6 things to know for May 25
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Israel media review

Pics and it didn’t happen: 6 things to know for May 25

As his trial begins, Netanyahu comes out swinging by showing contempt for the court, but it’s photos of the PM in the dock and with all of his friends that set the tone

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on trial at the District Court in Jerusalem on May 24, 2020. (Amit Shabi/POOL)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on trial at the District Court in Jerusalem on May 24, 2020. (Amit Shabi/POOL)

1. Trial by combat: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu took the stand on Sunday, kicking off his criminal trial. In an appearance widely viewed as defiant, Netanyahu set the tone for what is expected to be a contentious, years-long slog.

  • The trial, natch, received and is receiving wall-to-wall coverage, and Netanyahu made use of the pulpit. Flanked by ministers and lawmakers from his Likud party, Netanyahu delivered televised remarks before the start of the hearing at the Jerusalem District Court, declaring that all his right-wing supporters were on trial along with him and continuing to deride the judicial system as part of a plot to set him up and oust him from the premiership for crimes that never happened.
  • On Monday morning, even though some of the online media moves on to other stories, the trial dominates the print press landscape, taking up the full front pages of both tabloids Yedioth Ahronoth and Israel Hayom, and a large chunk of broadsheet Haaretz.
  • “The defendant will stand,” reads an understated headline on Yedioth Ahronoth’s front page. “The defense — attack,” reads Israel Hayom’s.
  • Even ultra-Orthodox papers lead off with the trial, though the sin of showing presiding judge Rivka Friedman-Feldman in her titillating black robes limits their pictorial choices and puts an arresting photo of Netanyahu looking straight into the camera out of bounds (she’s in the background).

2. A tale of two pictures: It’s too bad, because that photo becomes an instant classic, capturing a rare moment of vulnerability by the prime minister and making for a striking counterpart to his otherwise contumacious tone. (One almost feels for poor court clerk whose decision to show up in a T-shirt is captured forever in the corner.)

  • In Yedioth Ahronoth, Hen Arzi-Srour calls the picture “iconic,” crediting Netanyahu’s curiosity with overtaking his better judgment and causing him to turn around to give photographer Amit Shabi and others in the pool a chance for the shot.
  • “This was one moment of truth, of humanity, on a day that was one big show,” she writes.
  • (The paper, whose owner Arnon Mozes is also on trial, does not actually use that iconic picture, but rather one where Netanyahu is in profile, his posture slightly hunched in another image of vulnerability.)
  • “Netanyahu is a politician with a feeling for the historic. He knows that no matter what else he does as prime minister, this iconic picture will remain forever in the history books,” tweets Channel 13’s Barak Ravid.
  • Ultra-Orthodox news site Kikar Hashabbat highlights another picture, one of Netanyahu and a gaggle of non-social distancing Likud lawmakers gathered in the courtroom as if for a fun family photo. “The picture is worth a thousand words,” writes the website. “It was meant to send a message: the right is on Netanyahu’s side even as his trial begins.”
  • Former MK and journalist Miki Rosenthal compares the iconic photo to another group picture remembered in infamy.
  • And as with any iconic pictures, they are swiftly followed by the jokez:

3.The media is the message: The focus on pictures is no coincidence, as Netanyahu’s appearances inside and outside the courtroom are widely viewed as a highly choreographed display for the media.

  • ToI’s Jacob Magid writes that inside the courtroom, Netanyahu made sure to keep his face covered by a mask, but it’s no coincidence that the mask disappeared while he was making fiery statements to the press or being snapped with his supporters.
  • “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,” he writes.
  • Haaretz’s Anshel Pfeffer notes that Netanyahu tried unsuccessfully to control the image of him from inside the courtroom, but could not help but look at Liat Ben-Ari, the prosecutor: “While the photographers were still in the courtroom, before the judges’ entrance, Netanyahu remained standing, to deny them a picture of him sitting on the defendants’ bench. As they left and Netanyahu settled down, he tried to remain ramrod straight and look straight ahead at Friedman-Feldman. The CCTV cameras through which journalists could observe the proceedings were focused on his back. The minutes ticked on and the prime minister’s lawyer, Micha Fettman, spoke, followed by the three other defendants’ lawyers. Netanyahu could be seen looking sideways furtively at Ben-Ari, sitting just three meters away from him at the prosecution table. He became increasingly and visibly uncomfortable, caught between two women in black robes who now control his fate.”
  • Kan reports that the picture of Netanyahu’s supporters behind him contrasts sharply with the last top politician to face a legal challenge, Ehud Olmert, who admitted he was not popular and got little backing. The Likud members, on the other hand, “placed themselves on the defendant’s bench to show that they are indicted along with him.”
  • Seemingly veering from the paper’s line that Netanyahu’s popularity trumps the court’s authority to convict him, Israel Hayom columnist Aviad Hacohen writes that he was happy to see the “carnival” outside the courtroom stop at the door.
  • “To a large degree [Netanyahu’s words] were aimed at the public more than the judges. One should hope the latter will ignore them,” he writes. “At the end of the day, a trial should be decided by the evidentiary material, not by the rabble in the square.”

4. Civilwarland in an upswing: Netanyahu’s attempts to rally his base are widely viewed in the press as an attempt to undermine the courts.

  • Haaretz’s Yossi Verter calls Netanyahu’s speech outside the courtroom “his most barbed one ever, in the lobby of the Jerusalem District Court, within spitting distance of the judges’ chamber, a moment before his trial began.”
  • “He did this as if to warn them: After I took care of the police, the prosecution and the attorney general, just know you are next in line,” he adds.
  • In Yedioth, Nahum Barnea writes that protesters “threatened civil war.”
    Channel 12 news reports that the prosecution has decided to change tack rather than “respond to Netanyahu’s heavy fire with heavy fire of its own.”
  • “They understand that they could get dragged into a street brawl,” the channel notes.
  • Army Radio has on Yesh Atid MK Ofer Shelah, who accuses Netanyahu of “standing with a powder keg and burning the principles on which the state is based.”
  • ToI editor David Horovitz says Netanyahu’s speech was largely no different from his earlier railings against all his perceived enemies, but what was different was the display of power he attempted to project: “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.”

5. Putting the press on trial: In Israel Hayom, columnist Amnon Lord vociferously protests claims that Netanyahu’s backers are threatening anything, calling it part and parcel of  the “character assassination” aimed at Netanyahu for 25 years, likely referring to the actual assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, and also comparing it to fears of violence from right-wingers during the Gaza disengagement.

  • “Back then as well, important journalists and TV stations joined hands with certain security forces and libeled the settlers in Kfar Darom and Homesh that they were armed, that they planned to use their weapons and that the forces should not hesitate to take them out,” he writes.
  • His point is somewhat undermined by the fact that it is headlined “Netanyahu can still return fire,” which can easily be viewed as much a threat  as a simple analysis.
  • In the same paper, columnist Haim Shine accuses journalists and law enforcement of being in their own bribery conspiracy, railing against the prosecution and the courts and praising the “wisdom of the masses.”
  • “They didn’t realize that ‎a true leader, who is motivated by devotion to the nation, will not cave in or hesitate to confront all ‎those who want a small, weak state within the 1967 borders. A large majority of the public wants Israel ‎to be a superpower and believes that Netanyahu is making that dream come true,” he writes.
  • But is the right actually behind Netanyahu?
  • According to a Kan TV report Sunday night, the display of support behind Netanyahu was the result of the Prime Minister’s Office “demanding” that Likud ministers be sure to turn out, and only five dared defy the order.
  • The right-wing website Srugim deplores the behavior of Netanyahu’s supporters outside the courtroom: “Tons of Israeli flags waved, condemnations against the justice system were thrown into the air at pace and activists put on a display that was on the edge between free speech and incitement in which they acted as if senior judicial officials were physically attacking Netanyahu and stripping him of the ‘rank’ of the State of Israel — a reference to the Dreyfus trial.”

6. Bend it like Benny: While Netanyahu was on the stand and Likudniks were posing behind him, his political partner Benny Gantz was nowhere to be seen, though he is largely seen as being stained by Netanyahu’s actions. Channel 13’s Raviv Drucker says that his silence could ruin him politically.

  • “To a large degree, his ability to serve as prime minister in a year and a half depends on his ability to speak out and clarify his position regarding the attacks on the judiciary and the existence of the trial,” he writes.
  • Channel 12’s Amit Segal goes out of his way to highlight Gantz’s “flip-flop,” with another tired piece feigning shock at a politician who changed his position to jibe with the political winds.
  • The channel’s other correspondents call Netanyahu’s defiance “an attack on the character of Blue and White,” but note that the party is stuck not being able to come out too strongly if it wants to hold the Justice Ministry and keep it in non-Likud hands.
  • “On the other hand, the ministry is only worth anything if you do something with it,” the channel notes.
  • In Haaretz, Uri Misgav excoriates Gantz for his milquetoast tweet about presumption of innocence and writes that even if he wasn’t physically standing behind Netanyahu outside of court, he was there in spirit anyway.
  • “If Benny Gantz were truly brave and a man of values, he would have dismantled the government — or at least quit,” he writes. Instead, “This is his legacy: the presumption of innocence for a mafia don.”
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