Israel finds itself in uncharted territory.
For the first time in its history, Israel faces an unprecedented situation in which the state is pressing criminal charges against an incumbent prime minister.
On May 24, Benjamin Netanyahu appeared in the Jerusalem District Court, charged with bribery, fraud and breach of trust. Much to his chagrin, he had the dubious distinction of becoming the first sitting Israeli premier to stand trial.
The charges were laid by Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit, whom Netanyahu appointed and who was previously his cabinet secretary.
Netanyahu, Israel’s longest-serving leader, was originally scheduled to appear in court on March 17, but due to the coronavirus pandemic, the trial was postponed.
A few days before he was due to face a panel of three judges headed by Rivka Friedman-Feldman, Netanyahu tried to wriggle out of his predicament by disingenuously claiming his presence in court would be an unnecessary financial burden on the state.
Had he been sincere, he could have voluntarily stepped aside, like two of his predecessors: Yitzhak Rabin in 1977 and Ehud Olmert in 2008.
But Netanyahu stood his ground. Having claimed he was the victim of a “witch hunt,” he orchestrated a campaign of defamation against the police, the prosecutors and the “left-wing” media.
The opening shot in this public relations barrage was fired by a Likud Party member of the Knesset and Netanyahu loyalist, David Amsalem, who insinuated that Mandelblit was a “criminal.” Amsalem was referring to Mandelblit’s conduct in the 2010 Harpaz affair, knowing full well that the case against him was dropped.
Amsalem’s unsubstantiated accusation was disputed by Justice Minister Avi Nissenkorn, a member of the centrist Blue and White Party, a key component of Netanyahu’s government. “I have full confidence in the attorney general,” he said in a sharp rebuke to Amsalem.
Mandelblit, having received death threats and threatening messages since his indictment of Netanyahu last year, recently filed a complaint with the police.
Less than 24 hours before Netanyahu was due to arrive at the court, Amir Ohana, the newly appointed public security minister and former justice minister, implicitly dismissed the charges against his boss, saying that the sole purpose of the case against Netanyahu was to smear the “right-wing camp.”
The new Speaker of the Knesset, Yariv Levin, a Netanyahu confidant, was in attack mode, too. He blasted the trial as “one of the low points of the Israeli legal system” and characterized it as a blow to democracy and law enforcement.
Another Likud parliamentarian, Miki Zohar, claimed that Netanyahu’s indictment had been masterminded by the media and political rivals.
In theatrical fashion, Netanyahu showed up at the court one hour before his trial and denounced it as “an attempt to thwart the will of the people” and “bring me and the right down.”
Flanked by a bevy of cabinet ministers and Likud parliamentarians wearing surgical masks, Netanyahu portrayed himself as an underdog and claimed that “elements in the police and State Attorney’s Office had conspired with “left-wing journalists” to “fabricate baseless cases against me.”
“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,” Netanyahu added.
The leader of the opposition and Netanyahu’s former finance minister, Yair Lapid, lambasted Netanyahu. Charging him with leading Israel to the precipice of civil war, he declared, “There was a coup attempt and it was led by Netanyahu. He tried to attack the police, the prosecution, the courts, the media.”
Avigdor Liberman, the leader of the right-wing secular Israel Beytenu Party and Netanyahu’s former foreign minister and defence minister, condemned his remarks as “pure incitement,” saying he had presented a “false narrative” of a left-wing conspiracy to unseat him. “What is jarring is that instead of focusing on his trial, he is stirring up tensions between the parts of the people,” he said.
Olmert, a former Likudnik, pounced on Netanyahu. Branding him “a criminal, a scoundrel, a thief and a crime boss,” Olmert predicted he would be convicted and sent to prison. Olmert spent 16 months behind bars after being found guilty of bribery and other crimes.
Netanyahu’s play-for-time strategy is aimed at delegitimizing his adversaries, prolonging his trial so he can serve out his 18-month term of office as per his coalition agreement with Blue and White Party leader Benny Gantz, and winning a triumphal acquittal.
His game plan may well succeed, but it could as easily backfire.
In the meantime, Israel is saddled with a tainted prime minister whose lustre has been badly tarnished.