Trial by ire: 7 things to know for May 24
Israel media review

Trial by ire: 7 things to know for May 24

As Netanyahu readies to take the stand, anger is palpable among those who think he is dragging Israel into the abyss and those who say justice is being blind to the people’s will

A poster of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is seen, as "yellow vest" protests reach Israel with hundreds marching against the rising cost of living in central Tel Aviv on December 14, 2018. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)
A poster of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is seen, as "yellow vest" protests reach Israel with hundreds marching against the rising cost of living in central Tel Aviv on December 14, 2018. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

1. Prime defendant: The Israeli press has one thing on its mind Sunday morning, and it’s not the mercifully cooler weather. After years of investigations, leaks, smear campaigns, the end of democracy, drastically overblown hyperbole and more, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu becomes prime defendant Benjamin Netanyahu on Sunday afternoon.

  • That goes for both the Netanyahu-supporting press, like Israel Hayom, and those that are more critical of the prime minister.
  • “The trial,” reads the top headline of Israel Hayom.
  • “On the defendant’s bench,” says Yedioth Ahronoth, referring not to its publisher Arnon Mozes, who will also be standing trial, but — you guessed it —  Netanyahu.
  • “Many refused to believe that we would get to this sad moment, but this afternoon, it will indeed happen: For the first time in the nation’s history the serving prime minister will go to court to defend himself on charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust,” writes the paper. “The hearing will be short, but the trial is expected to be long, exhausting and divisive.”
  • Notably, a number of columns in the paper urge going into the trial with an open mind.
  • “No pre-conviction and no pre-exoneration. No hate and no admiration,” writes Ben-Dror Yemini. “The evidence gathered against Netanyahu points to problematic behavior and corruption. This does not mean he is guilty. The other side has more than enough justifiable claims.”
  • The Walla news site, whose owner Shaul Elovitch is also on trial, can’t help but play up the case given its historic proportions.
  • The site reads into the fact that Netanyahu was not allowed to skip out on the hearing as a sign that “the judges are treating Netanyahu just like any other defendant.”
  • Channel 12 news has the same takeaway, adding in that given “the decision to not allow the trial to be broadcast live, in order to allow witnesses to give testimony freely and without feeling pressure… the judges have sent a message that Netanyahu won’t have any extra rights when he’s sitting on the defendant’s bench.”

2. So how long will this thing take? A while apparently. Haaretz’s top headline previews what it says are the defense’s plans to “battle over every step,” atop a picture of the modest looking Jerusalem District Courtroom, forebodingly shaded in shadow, which may be ground zero for the case for years to come.

  • The paper notes that the two-man defense team is still working on getting up to speed, and is meanwhile taking a more confrontational approach thanks to the addition of attorney Micha Fettman.
  • “The defense team intends to file a large number of motions seeking disclosure of confidential material from the investigation against the prime minister,” the paper reports, quoting a source saying that “this time, there won’t be concessions.”
  • Channel 13 news also throws cold water on anyone hoping for a speedy trial: “Justice officials estimate that preliminary arguments will take six months to a year, meaning it will be many months before we hear the opening statement of prosecutor Liat Ben-Ari and until witnesses take the stand.”
  • Former deputy state prosecutor Yehoshua Reznik decries the expected glacial pace of the trial: “The judges should require two to three hearings a week. Otherwise this could take two years.”

3. Is justice blind to elections or something? Israel Hayom, a tabloid seen as a mouthpiece for Netanyahu (despite being on the losing end of an alleged quid pro quo deal with Yedioth’s publisher that is one of the cases being tried), runs a front page picture of Netanyahu, but the paper makes clear that it does not think it is the prime minister on trial, but rather the judges.

  • “All eyes are on the judges,” reads one front page op-ed, by Yaakov Ahimeir. And it’s probably little coincidence that the paper chooses to highlight the sentence that “the judges will also be subject to judgment, the judgment of the public.”
  • “Only an idiot would write” that, tweets Channel 12’s Guy Peleg. The judges aren’t under any test, certainly not of the public. Their decisions will be reviewed by an appeals court, not in the town square. Judges aren’t supposed to pacify the public will, the pundits and the rabble.
  • Others in Israel Hayom also crank their defenses of Netanyahu up to 11, backed by the idea that popularity trumps all. Columnist Amnon Lord calls putting Netanyahu on trial “a form of national suicide,” since he’s done so much good for the country.
  • “It is not only Netanyahu that the left wishes to undermine, but the popular choice; they seek to silence the group that understands that the rule of law is not the only thing enshrined by the bureaucrats at the Ministry of Justice on Salah al-Din Street in Jerusalem and the Civil Service Commission, backed by the robe-wearers on Givat Ram,” writes Jacob Bardugo in another column in the paper, twisting the idea of justice into an argument that might makes right.

4. Everybody’s a judge: The paper is not alone in defending Netanyahu, who indeed has many supporters who see his trial as the king of all injustices.

  • “This is bullying enforcement that cries out to the heavens,” one supporter tells Kan. “The system just wants to take him out.”
  • “The Netanyahu trial is against the Israeli public. The prime minister is charged with bribery and breach of trust, but he is elected again and again,” pro-Netanyahu activist Simcha Rothman tells Army Radio. “Are we such an idiot nation that we need to be told what hurts us? This is dictatorship in the most problematic way.”
  • Not everybody is convinced Netanyahu should be tried by a jury of all his voters: “My bad: The trial doesn’t start today,” snarks Kan’s Aryeh Ehrlich on Twitter. “It’s been going on for two years, in the media, online, in the Knesset and on the street. In this trial, every citizen is a judge, and every internet commenter has already passed judgment based on their political leanings.”

5. The court of public opinion: Much of the coverage focuses on the battles being waged outside the courtroom and the alarm over what many predict will be unrelenting attacks on law enforcement community is palpable.

  • Haaretz’s Gidi Weitz writes, “Some senior Justice Ministry officials believe he’ll adopt the tactics of a mafia don. Granted, he won’t send his soldiers to plant bombs in law enforcement officials’ cars, but he’ll use his mouthpieces in the political world and the media to undermine their public image, embitter their lives and intimidate them, a man well-versed in Netanyahu’s cases said.”
  • “The problem is not the trial but what is happening outside of it. The campaign against the justice system run from the residence on Balfour Street is futile and dangerous,” writes Nahum Barnea in Yedioth, comparing it to the atmosphere ahead of the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin or the highly charged trial of Hebron shooter Elor Azaria. “They are shutting their eyes to where this can lead. They are playing with fire.”
  • Kan’s Yaron Dekel writes that “Netanyahu, his son and supporters are aiming their fire at the attorney general. Because if the attorney general is corrupt or a criminal, then all his decisions are worthless.”
  • Channel 12’s Daphna Liel notes that convicted Interior Minister Aryeh Deri already tried the tactic of trying to win in the court of public opinion, and all it got him was two years in jail: “In a trial, the evidence needs to prove itself, but Netanyahu seemingly believes that a public atmosphere will help him pressure the judges.”

6. Nation on trial: Noting the rarity of a serving prime minister’s going on trial, ToI editor David Horovitz compares Netanyahu to another politician: Italy’s Silvio Berlusconi, and bemoans the pressures Israeli society will be put under during the trial.

  • “The trial of Netanyahu is widely seen as likely to drag on for two or three years at the very least. If the events of the last few days are anything to go by, this will be a period of dangerous frictions for Israel, with not just the country’s prime minister on trial, but also its judicial system, and the capacity of a society deeply at odds over the legitimacy of his prosecution to keep its divisions in check.
  • Channel 12’s Amnon Abramovich likewise writes that even if he’s found innocent, there is no taking back the damage he has done to the country and the rule of law.
  • “What he has done to himself, he has nobody to blame but himself. But as for what he’s done to the country, to law enforcement, to norms — this is where our story, Israeli citizens, begins. He has attacked and tried to discredit the police and the investigators, the prosecution and the lawyers, the attorney general and the justice system.”
  • Haaretz’s Chemi Shalev accuses Netanyahu of declaring no less than war on the country: “A leader with any compassion for his people would have vacated his chair, certainly after being formally indicted by his own attorney general, in order to quickly prove the innocence he so emphatically proclaims – and to spare his country the trials and tribulations that Netanyahu has inflicted on Israel over the past few years. Instead of letting Israel get on with its affairs while he takes care of his, Netanyahu insisted on entering the court as prime minister and thus dragging the entire country along with him.”
  • “Whether he is innocent or guilty, there’s no doubt that Israel is corrupt,” writes Walla’s Amir Oren.

7. Who killed annexation? The Netanyahu trial is not the only thing in the news (though it is most of it).

  • ToI’s Jacob Magid gives an insider account of how infighting among settler leaders may have managed to stymie their own hopes for Netanyahu to start annexing parts of the West Bank in days.
  • After an internal spat, a settler leader let slip news about the plans before the peace plan was even released, angering the administration and the Gulf states whose backing they needed, according to Efrat settlement mayor Oded Revivi, whose account much of the story is based on.
  • “Citing his conversations with Trump allies, Revivi explained that, the way he sees it, the administration’s plan was less about some grand desire to promote peace in the region and more about expanding business ties with the Gulf states, who are interested in seeing progress on the Palestinian issue before further developing their relationship with Israel’s biggest ally,” he writes.
  • “The Gulf states, according to Revivi, had been willing to move forward with the US, even if the Palestinians were to reject the plan, but when they got hold of how quickly the Israelis and Americans were planning to move on annexation, they voiced their objection to the Trump administration, leading [Jared] Kushner to slam the brakes on talk of sovereignty ‘within days.’”
  • “We really don’t understand what you’re doing. We thought you would have fallen on the floor and kissed Trump’s feet. Don’t you understand what you’re getting? You’re standing in the way of massive financial deals the US is hoping to ink with the Gulf states, and because of your statements, you’re jeopardizing the notion of America First,” Revivi recalled one Evangelical leader he appealed to for help once they tried to repair the boo-boo telling him.
  • Revivi, who has become an outspoken leader of the settler camp that is willing to see a Palestinian state if it means settlements can be annexed, writes in Israel Hayom that Israel should take what it can get: “Now, at a time when we have a broad unity government, and the biggest superpower in the world is backing us, we have a chance to ensure that we can pass on to the generations to come at least what we have built thus far. It is in Israel’s interest to implement the ‘deal of the century.’ We are part of the state. Israel wants to seek an end to the conflict, Israel needs diplomatic support, and Israel needs broad-based agreement.”
  • What’s seemingly just as outlandish as some settlers scuppering annexation? Iran pushing for it. In Gulf-based The National, though, Raghida Dergham, head of the Beirut Institute think tank, writes that Iran and its Hezbollah proxy are just waiting for the move to give them the green light to start attacking Israel.
  • “Iran is … less concerned about the prospect of Israeli action against Hezbollah and Lebanon than Washington might think,” she writes. “It has its own cost-benefit analysis. One clear benefit is that Iran would be the unambiguous champion of the Palestinian cause at a time of Arab complacency, and this would help Tehran rally support on the ground level throughout the Arab world, including with Hamas in Gaza.”
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