Olmert, Netanyahu: Covering Israeli prime ministers on trial

Longtime ‘Post’ law correspondent shares standout events he witnessed from the benches of justice while reporting on premiers Olmert and Netanyah.

 L: EHUD OLMERT in Jerusalem District Court, 2011. R: BENJAMIN NETANYAHU arrives for a hearing at the Jerusalem District Court, March 2022.  (photo credit: FLASH90, Yonatan Sindel/Pool via Reuters)
L: EHUD OLMERT in Jerusalem District Court, 2011. R: BENJAMIN NETANYAHU arrives for a hearing at the Jerusalem District Court, March 2022.
(photo credit: FLASH90, Yonatan Sindel/Pool via Reuters)

In December, I concluded a feat that few journalists in any country have been a part of: a decade of covering prime ministers on trial – the key part being “ministers” plural.

Having switched to covering military and intelligence issues for The Jerusalem Post full time (though you might eventually see an occasional commentary piece from me in the legal realm), I will no longer be your front-line view into the courtroom of the public corruption trial of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu – a story already running from 2017 to 2023 and counting, as I was for the Holyland trial of former prime minister Ehud Olmert from 2012 to 2016.

In fact, in my more than a decade in journalism, there was only slightly more than a year where an Israeli prime minister was not on trial or being investigated for corruption.

While mayor of Jerusalem, Olmert was accused of accepting more than NIS 1.5 million in bribes (out of around NIS 9m. allegedly given to public officials), either directly or through aides and his brother Yossi – mostly between 1993 and 1999. Besides a conviction in the Holyland affair, he was acquitted in multiple other affairs but also later convicted in the Talansky retrial and for witness tampering.

Netanyahu is currently on trial for the “illegal gifts affair” relating to the receipt of over NIS 700,000 in expensive cigars and champagne in situations of an alleged conflict of interest, as well as two alleged media bribery affairs – the Bezeq-Walla and Yediot Aharonot-Israel Hayom affairs – all while serving as prime minister.

 JERUSALEM’S HOLYLAND Park building complex for which Olmert accepted bribes, leading to his 2012 corruption trial.  (credit: FLASH90) JERUSALEM’S HOLYLAND Park building complex for which Olmert accepted bribes, leading to his 2012 corruption trial. (credit: FLASH90)

Below are a mix of key moments from my professional and personal thoughts from some of the highs, lows and otherworldly moments which I encountered during these dual sagas which changed the fate of the country multiple times and which historians will be taking apart for at least the next 50 years.

December 29, 2015: The change in Ehud Olmert was as clear as day, despite his attempts to downplay it.

When the Holyland trial had started three and a half years earlier, the former prime minister still saw himself as the king of the world and as possibly returning to the prime minister’s chair.

I watched him tour the courthouse and work the press and the audience as though he were at a convention of his political supporters.

Olmert and the other Holyland defendants laughed out loud at the prosecution and its main witness, Shmuel Duchner, then known under gag order only as S.D. I was struck that they interrupted his testimony so many times that Tel Aviv District Court judge David Rozen asked whether he was directing a trial or a circus.

I watched Olmert, fresh off beating the odds in the original Talansky trial, exude confidence as though he was expecting smooth sailing in the Holyland case.

But as he looked at the television cameras on December 29, 2015, giving what amounted to his concession speech after losing his final appeal to the Supreme Court and marking that he had failed in the fight of his life to maintain his political career and legacy,  his gaze seemed distant.

It was as though he were already looking at the press gallery from behind bars in the prison that I watched him enter on February 15, 2016.

As Olmert forced himself to speak, saying, “A big rock has been lifted from my heart,” he looked like he was in excruciating pain. To me, he looked exposed.

If anything, he looked sunken by the heavy rock, the weight and chains of prison.

There were no more defiant text messages from his spokesmen which had marked years of coverage of his legal cases like a steady drumbeat.

They had become famous for their aggressive and timely messages painting his detractors as being on a witch hunt against him, while proclaiming they would win out in the end.

Olmert’s message also seemed stretched, in light of the circumstances.

He said he was pleased that he had been acquitted of the main charges against him, though it was clear from his unusually flat delivery that he was crushed by the prospect of 18 months in prison (absent his partial acquittal, he could have spent more years in prison).

But the most distinctive part of his statement was what went unsaid.

He was possibly even holding back some regret – which, even as the game was up, he never uttered.

Whether that regret was an understanding of the crimes he committed, regret that he did not cover them up more carefully, or that he did not fund Shmuel Duchner better so that Duchner wouldn’t have broken the case to the prosecution will probably never be resolved. But he was not the same man I had watched up close for years. It was a stunning turnaround for a man who had verbally pounded the prosecution and the court with unprecedented confidence and ferocity for three years.

One of those classic moments where he seemed ready to pulverize the courtroom witness stand had come during his first day of testimony in the Holyland trial, on September 29, 2013:

I watched Olmert take the stand for the first time in the Holyland corruption trial against him, attacking the integrity of the state’s main witness, Shmuel Duchner, and the prosecution itself, as well as his brother Yossi Olmert, while vehemently denying he ever took bribes.

Olmert, who was still considered a threat to return to the premier’s chair after an initial set of acquittals in other cases, frequently slammed his fist on the witness stand at the Tel Aviv District Court. It seemed to me that he was genuinely furious when he said that the claims Duchner – who, in astonishing and dramatic fashion, died suddenly in mid-trial in March 2013 – made against him were “a lie, made up.”

He added that the only reason “my name was wrongly injected into this was to get millions from the state.”

Olmert also lashed out at the state; and when Rozen, who normally controlled his own courtroom with an iron hand, requested that he not attack the state in a personal manner, I was surprised that Olmert brushed off the request angrily with the retort that the prosecution had accused him of “being corrupt.”

Olmert’s lawyers previously proved Duchner had done a faulty photocopy job in combining unrelated documents, when they showed that a telephone number on one document did not exist in the year that the document was allegedly drafted.

I could see that the former prime minister became visibly angry when discussing the forged document. He slammed his hand down on the table again, attacking the state for allowing its main witness to bring a forged document into the court and not checking its authenticity.

“All of Duchner’s false stories were created to convince the state that they had a big fish and to bring down Ehud Olmert. It never was and it never happened. It’s a lie and made up.”

Ehud Olmert

“All of Duchner’s false stories were created to convince the state that they had a big fish and to bring down Ehud Olmert. It never was and it never happened. It’s a lie and made up,” he proclaimed on the witness stand.

He added that he had “expected more” from the prosecution, implying that if it had submitted documents to the court that Duchner later admitted were forgeries, then it had not carefully checked Duchner’s allegations.

Regarding his brother Yossi, Ehud said that their relationship was “weak,” filled with “tension,” and that he was careful to “keep his distance” from him.

Ehud explained that he had multiple conflicts with Yossi.

In contrast, Duchner testified in detail over several months, asserting that the project “could not have happened” without Olmert’s support, obtained through bribery, and that Olmert questioned him in detail about the real estate initiative and how he would get “reimbursed” for assisting with approvals.

What one needs to understand about Duchner is that it was apparent that he had spent his life lying but was now telling the truth in order to get revenge.

At a certain point when some of the allegations relating to the Holyland trial started to surface, Olmert and his other power-broker sponsors had cut him off.

I could tell that Duchner viewed this as a personal betrayal so great that he was ready to become “Judas” and turn in all of his former sponsors and friends to the police.

When I watched him waddle – he walked with a cane and with difficulty – by Olmert and the other dozen defendants for each of the initial hearings, the tension in the air had the feel more of a deeply personal hatred of brothers who had known all of each other’s ins and outs, versus just another former aide turned state’s witness.

The prosecution’s case suffered a setback with the death of Duchner in March 2013, before Olmert’s lawyers finished their cross-examination.

Losing Duchner was so significant that in April 2013, following his death, the prosecution was openly flirting with dismissing the case, according to deputy state attorney Shuki Lemberger.

Despite the concerns that the case would fall apart, the prosecution eventually obtained a decisive conviction against Olmert.

This led to another dramatic appearance by Olmert on April 29, 2014, but this time his enemy was Rozen, who had convicted him.

April 29, 2014: Ehud Olmert testifies at his sentencing hearing

Ascending the witness stand one last time in dramatic fashion and staring down the court, Olmert thundered away at Rozen for several minutes, saying he had never taken bribes and that the Supreme Court would correct his mistaken conviction for bribery.

“I never asked for, or got, a bribe, neither indirectly nor directly, not for me, not for close people, not for anyone in the family.”

Ehud Olmert

“I never asked for, or got, a bribe, neither indirectly nor directly, not for me, not for close people, not for anyone in the family,” Olmert said.

“I respect this place, all judges in Israel, and you, so I decided to keep my remarks very short and will not cry out the cry that I wanted to make,” he said. “I never took a bribe. This is the truth, and there is no other.”

Olmert added that the guilty verdict against him was “completely wrong,” that he would appeal “to the Supreme Court,” and that he believed it would “see the full picture” and exonerate him.

I remember that Olmert’s presentation was uniquely prime ministerial and almost like a press conference. I had never seen anything like it in a courtroom. Defendants typically either express remorse or disagree with the court in a low-key manner, hoping for a lenient sentence. They certainly never return to the witness stand and dress down the court within the courtroom (even if some do so outside the court at press conferences).

I recall that Rozen, who had been a dominating presence for most of the proceedings, was also not himself. He sat and listened intently and was uncharacteristically speechless in response.

Besides the former prime minister, Olmert’s lawyer, star attorney Eli Zohar, said Olmert has been “punished in the media and before the public insufferably according to all notions of what could be expected in Israel and around the world.” He continued, “What has happened in recent weeks,” with Olmert’s former chief of staff, Shula Zaken, “has been an insufferable media festival” which “has harmed this legal process.”

Zohar was referring to Zaken’s vacillating for weeks over whether to pursue a plea bargain with the state. The state had initially rejected her offer to testify against Olmert, only to cut a deal with her days later when she produced tapes, allegedly of Olmert trying to convince her not to cooperate with the state.

The defense lawyer did not linger extensively on Olmert’s contributions to the state but said that “35 years of public service” must “be given some weight” in reducing any punishment.

In a heated exchange, Zohar asked Rozen to ignore the large size of the bribery funds Olmert was accused of being involved with ($500,000 for his brother) for purposes of punishment. I was struck by Rozen’s angry response when he stated, “What are you saying, that NIS 20,000 is the same as NIS 500,000?”

Rather, said Rozen, “of course, the amount of the bribe and the scope of the crime impact the severity of the punishment.”

In another back-and-forth, as Zohar tried to separate out Olmert’s conviction from the massiveness of the bribery scheme engulfing the 16 defendants, the court rebuked him, saying that “it is all the same movie” and that Olmert was part of the bigger scheme.

When I watched Olmert, a former prime minister, sneak into his prison in Ramle to avoid being seen for long by the media, I believed that nothing could top the legal conflagration I had witnessed.

I was wrong.

May 24, 2020: The Netanyahu trial opens in the shadow of the coronavirus

Surrounded by Likud ministers, his Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) detail and the raucous noise of hundreds of supportive protesters blanketing the neighborhood, Defendant No. 1, Benjamin Netanyahu, became the first sitting prime minister of Israel (Olmert resigned before he was indicted) in history to enter a courthouse under indictment. He faced and is facing charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust. 

Netanyahu tried to control the media messaging. He organized an ad-hoc photo with an intimidating aura to it with his ministers in a courtroom while giving a speech in which he blasted law enforcement.

I did not fully express how incredulous the court officials were at the time, but they were in a state of utter shock, which I had practically never seen them in. They said they had been hoodwinked into thinking he just wanted a room for privacy and to prepare for the hearing.

During the hearing itself, I noticed that Netanyahu avoided sitting with the other defendants until the photographers left the room. Incidentally, in multiple hearings, I happened to be sitting in the corner where Netanyahu would wait until the photographers left. From these hearings there was at least one stock photo and video which repeated for three months, with me appearing right over his shoulder.

Inside, almost every inch of the courthouse was covered with security and media – although due to coronavirus social distancing regulations (remember those!), media and most of the lawyers (the defense lawyers rotated in and out for their clients) were put in two courtrooms adjacent to the main courtroom to watch the trial on closed-circuit TV.

Getting into the courthouse had been the hardest part. Security around the courthouse was unprecedented, with the Shin Bet and a massive police presence cutting off traffic for hundreds of meters and at junctions in several directions. In a pre-vaccine time when the coronavirus was considered a serious threat and people were elbow-butting to avoid physical contact, I had to shove my way through a huge crowd, making contact with hundreds of people, to even get to the Shin Bet checkpoint.

Netanyahu was much quieter and more humble than Olmert had been before the judges themselves. When asked by Judge Rivka Friedman-Feldman, who had convicted Olmert in the “Talansky retrial affair,” if he understood the indictment, Netanyahu responded blandly, “Yes. I have read the indictment and I understand it,” but added nothing else and sat straight and poker-faced behind his corona mask.

This was actually a contrast to Olmert, who was happy to show bravado in front of Rozen.

Next, the sides started to debate a crucial issue in that hearing and throughout the Netanyahu trial: time. Time in the Netanyahu trial, which was delayed by two months by the coronavirus outbreak, was never just about justice. For Netanyahu, it was also deeply about politics.

Mainly, he wanted it to take as long as possible. The later key witnesses (read: his former top aides) would attack him, the better. The later he will need to testify, the better. The later the verdict, which if he loses could end his political career, the better.

Also, the trial schedule had a huge impact on Netanyahu’s (supposed) planned transfer of power to Blue and White’s Benny Gantz in November 2021, and what his status would be after that transfer. One of the reasons Netanyahu refused to honor the rotation with Gantz was that he apparently wanted to wield the prime minister’s bully power against the judiciary, if necessary.

“It became clear to us during the pre-indictment hearing that all three cases are linked, and nothing can start until all document disputes are resolved,” said Netanyahu lawyer Amit Hadad in a loud and threatening tone at the first hearing.

“It became clear to us during the pre-indictment hearing that all three cases are linked, and nothing can start until all document disputes are resolved.”

Amit Hadad

If Netanyahu himself was softer toward the court, Netanyahu’s lawyers were even more aggressive than Olmert’s, as if to hint that trifling with them too much could lead to concrete problems from the sitting prime minister.

He and Netanyahu asked to delay the calling of witnesses by around a year until spring 2021, whereas the prosecution asked for summer 2020, or in any event much sooner.

State Prosecution team leader Liat Ben-Ari responded in her reserved undertone but packing a punch. She said that there were 1,200 legal files in the Holyland trial, whereas in all three Netanyahu cases there are only a few hundred legal files.

“I am not underplaying these cases,” she said, but added that she believed the case could move forward faster than the defendants had said.

Ben-Ari had a special status for me and other veteran reporters, as she was also the head of the prosecution in the Holyland trial against Olmert.

She pointed out that most of the defense lawyers in the case had worked on it for years and that the two massive rounds of documents transferred to them were provided between February 2019 and summer 2019, prior to the October pre-indictment hearings.

The judges were still figuring out their personae for this unprecedented show trial, and I noticed that they said very little during the hearing.

But around an hour after it ended, they issued a ruling setting July 19, 2020, as the next hearing date. This was a clear victory for Netanyahu’s position, as the July 19 hearing date was merely a second procedural round, with no hint about when witnesses would be called.

There was some kicking and screaming where it seemed a compromise date might be reached, but in the end Netanyahu won hands down – not a single witness was called until April 2021.

November 22, 2021: Netanyahu’s closest aide, Nir Hefetz, testifies against him

The first major witness in the case was former Walla CEO Ilan Yeshua. After Nir Hefetz, another close Netanyahu aide, Shlomo Filber, would testify.

While important, and while they both provided nearly two months of constant shocking headlines relating to Netanyahu, the highlight witness of the trial to date was probably Nir Hefetz, the State Prosecution’s star witness and Netanyahu’s former top aide, on and off, for nearly 10 years. In addition to being so close to Netanyahu, Hefetz also had a bubbliness and flair for the dramatic that made him unique.

He opened his testimony by telling the Jerusalem District Court that Netanyahu demanded updates on media coverage about him, even during meetings on national security.

Hefetz said that during the years 2009-2010 and 2014-2017, in which he worked as one of Netanyahu’s closest advisers, he witnessed up close that the prime minister was focused on his media image above all other issues.

I noticed that as Hefetz testified, Netanyahu mostly sought to project confidence, though he was clearly far more uncomfortable and nervous than in any other hearing I had seen him in. This was a witness who could really sink him, and he knew it.

Hefetz looked far more tense and serious than Netanyahu upon entering the courtroom. Yet, once he started to testify, I could see that he seemed to calm down, and he projected that he was finally at peace with being a state’s witness.

Netanyahu and Hefetz only briefly glanced directly at each other, without showing emotion, but mostly avoided eye contact.

At various times when Hefetz made statements potentially helpful to Netanyahu (most statements were negative, but not all), the former prime minister emphatically nodded his head.

In any event, the moment when Hefetz testified was the most heartbreakingly similar to the moments when Duchner or Zaken testified against Olmert. The air was filled with a depth of closeness mixed with betrayal felt both by the former bosses and those who once devoted their lives to them.

February 7, 2022: Pegasus police spying scandal invades the trial

Still, in maybe the most unforgettable and tense moment of the Netanyahu trial, the feisty and charismatic lawyer of Shaul Elovitch (Netanyahu’s co-defendant in the Bezeq-Walla affair), Jacques Chen, on behalf of all of the defendants, told the Jerusalem District Court, “An enormous plague broke out” with the police spying on the cellphones of persons swept up in the public corruption trial of Netanyahu.

His face ashen, then red, his arms waving about as if he was conjuring a supernatural storm, Chen demanded that the court halt the calling of witnesses in its tracks.

Chen’s point was that until the situation was cleared up about whether the police had illegally spied on persons involved in the Netanyahu case, the potential for the proceedings to be tainted would continue to grow.

Further, he said, “there cannot be a trial of justice. We cannot learn the truth” until the police spying issue is clarified.

I and most of the journalists believed that Chen would have the judges cowed. The size of the alleged police cellphone spying scandal was so massive that even most of the Naftali Bennett government’s anti-Netanyahu ministers seemed ready to turn on the police.

All of us were wrong. Chen was confronted with the same face of steel that I saw Friedman-Feldman give to Olmert when she voted to convict him in the Talansky affair retrial. Talk about a judge who is hard to reach emotionally.

She said condescendingly, “You are talking about what someone said in the media. The prosecution is doing a review,” implying that the court would not get into the police spying issue until after a particular witness testified.

Chen was incredulous and not ready to fold. He bellowed back at the court, “I am not even merely talking about the rights of the defendants – what about the public’s faith? How can this train continue to run?”

As with many points in the Netanyahu trial, a strange compromise was reached. The prosecution and the court got their way with an hour or more of questioning a witness, but Chen and the defense got their way, freezing the trial for over a week when one of the questions fell into the police spying issue trap of dealing with the witness’s cellphone. 

IN ALL, the Netanyahu trial may be a year behind where it could have been. Might the most recent elections have ended differently if Netanyahu had been convicted before they concluded?

If Olmert had been acquitted, might he have returned to office?

We will never know the answers to these questions.

But I did have the honor of reporting up close on two trials (with Netanyahu’s still going) that radically altered Israeli history. One trial ended Olmert’s career. The other led to Netanyahu losing office for 18 months, five rounds of elections, and may still end his career as well. In both cases, I got to see, literally inches away, how leaders of nations held up under extreme pressure in the courtroom.

And yet my hope is that future prime ministers will act in a way that will leave them so far above any suspicion of needing to be investigated that the “honor” of reporting on prime ministers on trial will become something historians need to write about, but not journalists. ■