Showing posts with label "Israel. Show all posts
Showing posts with label "Israel. Show all posts

Sunday, May 24, 2020

The Trial Begins: Netanyahu's Criminal Trial Officially Starts

It was a wild and crazy opening to a trial that will surely be one of the memorable events in the history of the State of Israel.  Prime Minister Netanyahu arrived today at the Jerusalem District Court for the official opening of his trial.  This was really only a date to read out the charges and set dates for the continuation of the trial.  But it was a polarizing and fascinating spectacle.

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.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Israel Needs a Two Day Weekend

Anticipation of the weekend for many North Americans and others living in western countries can often be a preoccupation. Canadian pop singers have written a number of different anthems. 1980’s band “Loverboy” topped the charts with its hit “Everybody’s Working for the Weekend.” Hard rock band “Triumph” was less successful with its 1970’s song “I live for the Weekend,” but still captured the idea. There have been many other examples.

There is no doubt that not everyone in these countries enjoys the benefits of the weekend. In Canada, retail activity has grown dramatically over the past twenty years after Canadian Provinces eliminated Sunday closure laws. Many people continue to work in a range of industries on Saturday or Sunday or sometimes both. Many professionals and others work one or both weekend days. But there are still a significant number of people who enjoy a five day work week with Saturdays and Sundays off. There are many others with two days off, even if those days are two other days.

For observant Jews, a two day weekend in the diaspora has generally been a blessing. Saturday, as Shabbat, has meant attendance at Synagogue, family time, no travel, no commercial activity and a real day of rest. Observance of Shabbat in many areas has helped build a sense of community and synagogues have often played a central role.

Sunday, has been generally set aside for almost everything else that people might want to do but don’t have time to do in a busy week. Shopping, kids’ sports activities, family outings, leisurely brunches, weddings, unveilings, the list goes on and on. For North Americans and other westerners, it’s hard to imagine moving to a six day work week instead of a five day week. In fact, in the late 20th century, some writers began to speculate about a utopian future of shorter and shorter work weeks, perhaps even three or four days.

In contrast to the rest of the western world, Israel does not have a two day weekend. Sure there is a Hebrew word “sof shavua,” meaning weekend - but really it just means Friday night and Saturday.

Israeli students go to school six days a week. Although younger kids often finish by 1:30 p.m., the fact is that there are still six days of waking up early to be on time for school. Many people in Israel work six days a week. Although many leave work early on Fridays and a growing number don’t work at all that day, Friday is not seen as a universal day of rest. For those parents who have the day off, their kids are still in school so it is not a family day.

A six day week is one of the most difficult adjustments for immigrants who are often used to enjoying a two day weekend (and a number of three day long weekends throughout the year). But it is also difficult for Israelis, even if they have never had the opportunity to enjoy the rhythm of a five day week rather than one that stretches over six.

Earlier this year, Deputy Prime Minister of Israel, Sivan Shalom, proposed a legislative change to turn Israel into a five day work week society. The initiative met with significant opposition and is currently being “studied.”

Many observant Jews are opposed to the idea of turning Sunday into a second day of rest, arguing that it would not suit a Jewish country to adopt a Christian day of rest. But a legislatively mandated weekend would not turn Sunday into another Sabbath in a religious sense. In Israel today, in many areas, buses do not run on Saturday; restaurants and stores are closed; many activities are viewed as religiously prohibited. Turning Sunday into at least a partial day of rest would not mean adopting all of these measures in relation to Sunday. In fact, observant Jewish families would be among the major beneficiaries of a two day weekend. They could spend Saturday observing Shabbat; and then spend Sunday enjoying so many other activities. Many of these other activities would be defined as “work” under Jewish law and prohibited on Shabbat, even if they are, in fact, leisure activities. But this “work” would certainly permissible and even encouraged on Sundays.

Some people argue that Friday is already a shortened day due to the need to prepare for Shabbat, especially in the fall and winter. If Sunday becomes a weekend day, they maintain that Israel will effectively be transferring to a four-day work week rather than a five day week. But although some people work short days or have Fridays off, kids are in school and everything is opened. In Israel currently, the weekend does not really begin on Fridays for most people, or at least not until Friday evenings.

There has also been some opposition to including Sunday in the weekend from Israel’s significant Muslim population, who argue that Israel should make Friday a second weekend day if it is to make this kind of change. Other countries in the Middle East have a Friday-Saturday weekend. However, Israel’s principal trading and commerce partners are Europe and the United States as well as, increasingly, countries in the far-east rather than the other Middle Eastern countries. Perhaps this might change one day but that does not seem too likely in the short term, despite the current “Arab Spring” (which so far, seems more like the start of a long winter…) So a commercial synchronization with the west would probably be a better step for Israel.

Others have put forward arguments about the potential effect on productivity in Israel society. What will happen if the country reduces its six day work week? Won’t this dramatically affect commercial output? Well, some have cynically responded that Israel would be lucky to get four days of productivity from its workers even under the current six day system…

After all, it is worth reviewing, less cynically, but more realistically, some actual highlights of the Sunday to Friday “work week.” Post offices, banks, government offices, conveniences stores all close certain mornings or afternoons during the week – and not even at the same time! In many industries, workers take ½ hour breaks, all together from 10 a.m. to 10:30 every day. Some stores still close from 1 to 4 p.m. or from 2 to 5 p.m. for an afternoon siesta. Much of this would probably have to change to ensure the proper use of a two day weekend. But Israeli commerce would benefit from the certainty of having almost everything open, universally, on a regular schedule.

Whether it is Friday-Saturday or Saturday-Sunday, it seems to me that Israeli society would benefit greatly from switching to a five day week. Kids should be in school normal hours, from 8:30 to 3:30 p.m. or 8 to 3 p.m. Monday to Thursday and perhaps until 12:30 or 1 p.m. on Fridays. Government offices should be open five full days a week from 8 to 4:30 or 8 to 5 p.m., as should banks, post offices and other organizations. While some workers will find it annoying to actually have to work five full days, a far greater percentage of Israelis will benefit from access to an extended weekend.

For observant Jews and for those who wish to see greater observance of Shabbat in Israeli society, a two day weekend will provide an alternate day for many people to do their errands, their shopping and to travel. Saturday night could become a great night for pubs, restaurants, movie theatres and many other places offering public entertainment.

For all Israelis, whether Sabbath observant or not, a two day weekend is likely to help reduce stress levels and slow down the hectic pace of Israeli society. This can only be a good thing – even if it will be a Herculean challenge to bring Sivan Shalom’s proposal into effect.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Presentation of Necklace to Shakira by Israeli President Shimon Peres

Earlier today, President Peres presented a necklace to international recording star, Shakira, who was in Israel promoting education. The necklace was made by Yemenite silversmith and artist Ben-Zion David and was presented to Shakira on behalf of Shimon Peres by a young girl from Ra'anana, who I happen to know quite well.