The Prime Minister arrived at the courtroom as part of a televised convoy of vehicles, all part of his security detail. He then took to the steps of the courtroom and stood in front of a group of supporters including fellow cabinet ministers, members of his government and the other accused. He gave a lengthy speech attacking the police, the prosecutor's office, the left and just about everyone else. Given that his government has been in power for such a lengthy period of time, at least some of this vitriol had to have been directed at his own government. After all, some of the people responsible for investigating him were his own appointees and designates.
Netanyahu argued that the three criminal cases that he is facing have been "sewn together" and add up to nothing. He spoke about pressure that the State used to obtain cooperation of State witnesses. And he said "the people of Israel will judge him." He went on about his electoral successes and the number of people who voted for him. The TV stations here broadcast the full speech - which went on for quite a while. It was a call to the public to stand by him and provide unconditional support, no matter what might occur.
At the same time, there were busloads of Netanyahu supporters, from across the country, who had arrived to show their support for Netanyahu, "no matter what happens." This may have been organized by Netanyahu's legal team but so far, there is no evidence of that. The interviews with several of these witnesses were riveting and frightening. "The "Kadosh Baruch Hu will protect him and ensure that justice is done," said several of those who were interviewed, using various other terms for the divine intervention that they are expecting.
Others attacked the court system, the prosecutor's office, the judges and the Israeli left. Several of them played religious songs and danced in front of the courtroom as if they were at a wedding. One 12 year-old girl was interviewed, standing next to her father, and said she had decided to come to the demonstration instead of her bat-mitzvah party. She wanted to stand for "truth and justice," she said. "They are harassing the Prime Minister," she continued, "they should just leave him alone...think about all of the great things he has done for the country." "I would rather be here standing for truth and justice than having a bat mitzvah party." My only reaction to that was "wow."
There were also several protesters demonstrating against Bibi, but they didn't seem to get very much press coverage.
Ultimately, Netanyahu delayed taking a seat inside the courtroom until all of the press had left so that he could not be photographed sitting in the accused's dock. And so it began. As might be expected, Netanyahu's lawyers argued that he required an extensive time period to prepare and review the charges, well into 2021. They had a new lawyer on the team and would need extra time to get up to speed. The prosecution argued that he has been aware of the charges and was provided with extensive evidence and materials quite some time ago. They pushed for an early date for the continuation of the trial. The three judges reserved and will announce a schedule later today or some time tomorrow.
Earlier this week, several Israeli TV programs and news reporters conducted in-depth reviews of the three cases against Netanyahu. They were able to do this based on the public release of transcripts of witness examinations, text messages, emails and evidence provided by Netanyahu himself.
The most serious set of charges involves the Bezek telephone company and its press subsidiary "Walla" which operates a Hebrew language on-line news service. The prosecution alleges that Netanyahu provided extensive regulatory favours to Bezek which allowed them to earn millions of dollars over a period of two years. In exchange, the prosecution alleges that the CEO of Bezek agreed to provide Netanyahu with favourable news coverage on Walla. The prosecution has put forward a huge number of emails, text messages and other communications showing that Netanyahu and his wife, Sara, were sent articles in advance and given the opportunity to edit them and change them to make them more favourable to Bibi. In some cases, Bibi and Sara were provided with advance copies of video interviews and allowed to splice them, delete sections and change the context of the interviews.
Netanyahu's defence is that politicians always try to influence the media.. He argues that this is part of the game and can't be criminal. His lawyers call this case an attack on the freedom of the press. They claim that merely obtaining favourable press coverage cannot be the subject of a bribery case. In fact, Netanyahu's legal team recruited world famous law professor Allan Dershowitz to come to Israel and make that argument at Netanyahu's preliminary argument last year. Essentially, the argument was that even if Netanyahu provided something of value to Bezek (worth millions of dollars), he didn't get anything of value in exchange since "favourable press coverage" has no value. Not surprisingly, the Israeli court dismissed this preliminary argument out of hand. I imagine that Dershowitz's arguments in support of Trump would have also met the same fate if they were made before any panel of objective judges.
Netanyahu did not speak about the other two criminal counts. According to one count, he received hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of champagne and cigars from Israeli/American business people over a period of several years. The gifts are well documented and not disputed. In exchange, it is alleged that he provided them various favours, including, for example, assisting one to try and get President Obama involved in a business visa matter. Here, Netanyahu's primary defence seems to be that "there is nothing wrong with getting some gifts from your friends..." His lawyers have also said that if a good friend asks for a favour, of course you are going to help out. They simply claim that there is no linkage between the two.
The third set of criminal charges also involve allegations of breach of public trust involving another news organization and an attempted deal to arrange favourable publicity.
Netanyahu has the right, as do all accused, to be considered innocent until and unless he is found guilty. However, there is a great deal of damning evidence here and the legal defences that he is putting forward do not seem likely to assist him in getting out of this completely.
For that reason, Netanyahu has invested significant effort in trying to get legislation passed that would retroactively eliminate the charges and provide him with immunity. However, under the current government coalition deal, has not been able to extract that concession. If this current coalition falls apart and there is another election, before the trial is concluded, Netanyahu might still be able to use the political process to get himself out of legal trouble. There is probably a reasonable bet on Netanyahu's part that this would be his best way of dealing with these issues. After all, he came within 3 seats of being able to get those concessions after the most recent election and he has now eviscerated Gantz and his Blue and White Party. It is quite possible that if a fourth election is called, Netanyahu may be able to cobble together a 61 seat majority "immunity coalition."
If that doesn't work, he may yet negotiate some sort of plea bargain deal, down the road. His wife Sara negotiated a plea bargain deal last year which saw her agreeing to plead guilty and repay some of the money that she had fraudulently obtained from the state.
If the case somehow makes its way all the way through a trial and through to a conclusion, it will be intense, highly contested, dramatic and unpredictable. And throughout, Netanyahu is certain to continue using his out of court time to call on the Israeli public to accept only one conclusion to his legal problems, whatever the evidence might show and whatever the judges might otherwise decide.
Stay tuned, although this trial is not likely to continue before the end of all of the Jewish holy days in late October, 2020 and it may not even start until months later.