The Netanyahu trial casts a never-ending shadow on Israel

NATIONAL AFFAIRS: The Netanyahu saga has already lasted more than twice as long as it took for the Watergate scandal to unfold, and – again – no one can say when it will end.

 BENJAMIN NETANYAHU prepares to speak at Likud headquarters in Tel Aviv on Tuesday. (photo credit: AVSHALOM SASSONI/FLASH90)
BENJAMIN NETANYAHU prepares to speak at Likud headquarters in Tel Aviv on Tuesday.
(photo credit: AVSHALOM SASSONI/FLASH90)

On May 28, 1972, a break-in occurred at the Democratic Party National Committee headquarters at the Watergate complex in Washington, DC.

A year later, on May 17, 1973, the US Senate Watergate Committee hearings began. On August 4, 1974, president Richard Nixon resigned. On September 8 of that year, president Gerald Ford pardoned Nixon.

From beginning to end, the whole Watergate saga that unseated a sitting president lasted 29 months.

Compare that to the saga involving former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the three cases against him: 1,000, 2,000 and 4,000.

Netanyahu and the cases against him

The police began formally investigating Netanyahu in December 2016. In February 2018, the police recommended an indictment. On November 21, 2019, the attorney-general formally indicted Netanyahu on charges of breach of trust, accepting bribes and fraud.

Netanyahu’s trial formally opened in Jerusalem District Court on May 24, 2020. About a year later, on April 5, 2021, witnesses began their testimony. And the trial, with twists and turns, ups and downs, has been going on ever since.

Courtroom 317, the scene of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's trial (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)Courtroom 317, the scene of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's trial (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)

In other words, from the start until today, the Netanyahu saga has already lasted 69 months. Sixty-nine. And there is still no end in sight. The Netanyahu saga has already lasted more than twice as long as it took for the Watergate scandal to unfold, and – again – no one can say when it will end.

A never-ending trial and its many twists

As it drags on week by week, month by month, year by year, two things are happening. First, Netanyahu continues to be the country’s No. 1 fault line, the issue that divides the country in two. Second, as the episode drags on, the whole story gets murkier and murkier.

This week it was Moshe Saada who added to the murk. On Sunday, few people had ever heard of Saada, by Tuesday morning, he was a household name.

Why? Because on Monday evening, Channel 12’s Amit Segal aired an interview in which Saada alleged that former attorney-general Avichai Mandelblit – the man who decided to indict Netanyahu – and former state prosecutor Shai Nitzan – who build the case against the former prime minister – turned a blind eye to what he alleged were scandalous actions taken by former police commissioner Roni Alsheich – who oversaw the investigations of the Netanyahu cases – because they did not want to do anything that could be perceived as helping the former prime minister.

Until he was relieved of his duties due to “incompatibility” in October, Saada was deputy head of the Police Internal Investigations Department – the cop unit that investigates the cops, from the beat officer accused of being trigger happy, to the head of the police’s anti-corruption unit accused of sexual harassment. He formally left the force last week.

SAADA, WHO up until recently was “flesh of the police’s flesh,” charged in the interview that Alsheich saw the PID as “hostile” and adopted criminal means to fight against it. Of Nitzan, he said the state prosecutor was exceptionally smart but was not someone for whom “truth was the guiding light,” and rather would set a target and then go after it at the expense of undermining the law.

In the explosive interview just days after he left the police force and no longer had to seek permission to speak to the press, Saada said Alsheich interfered in his unit’s investigation into the shooting of a Yacoub Abu al-Kiyan in the unrecognized Bedouin village of Umm al-Hiran in January 2017, so that the findings would be consistent with Alsheich’s initial announcement that Kiyan was a terrorist who tried to run over a police officer at the scene

Nitzan, according to Saada, knew the incident in Umm al-Hiran was not a terrorist attack, acknowledged as much in private, but did nothing to correct the erroneous impression that Alsheich left.

Saada related a meeting he had with Alsheich, Nitzan and Mandelblit during which Alsheich exploded at Saada and threatened to close down his unit. Saada described the meeting as highly charged and filled with screaming. He described Mandelblit as shaking while trying to calm the police commissioner.

Asked why Nitzan and Mandelblit would protect Alsheich, Saada said, “A simple reason – there is one central consideration, one and only: the Netanyahu cases. The Netanyahu cases during this period were turning into the most important thing. The entire system was oriented toward the Netanyahu cases.”

“A simple reason – there is one central consideration, one and only: the Netanyahu cases. The Netanyahu cases during this period were turning into the most important thing. The entire system was oriented toward the Netanyahu cases.”

Moshe Saada

By this time Netanyahu had launched his offensive saying the legal system was out to get him, and – according to Saada – Nitzan feared that showing Alsheich in a blatant lie would serve Netanyahu’s narrative.

Saada said that Nitzan was willing to please Alsheich at any cost, because in his view, “There are ‘state interests’ [at stake].” Saada said that the intention was clear: the Netanyahu cases.

“You don’t want to please those who want the worst for the law enforcement system,” he quoted Nitzan as saying.

This interview was not the first time these allegations arose. Two years ago, Segal reported on an email exchange between Nitzan and Saada, who was the acting PID chief at the time, with Nitzan writing that Alsheich’s behavior was “intolerable” and “scandalous.” However, Nitzan said he was reticent to take action due to “national interest” – hinting that this would give ammunition to those, an obvious allusion to Netanyahu, trying to delegitimize “the law enforcement system.”

Responses to this latest interview were furious and fast. Alsheich characterized Saada’s comments as completely fabricated lies not worth dignifying with a response. He said that Saada was a frustrated officer who was passed over for promotion and had an ax to grind.

Nitzan responded by saying that Saada worked for him for years, and never voiced any complaints against him. These complaints only started when Saada was passed up for promotion, after which he besmirched and lied about Nitzan. Nitzan said Saada had ulterior motives.

The interview and the Israel national fault line

SHORTLY AFTER the interview aired, Walla speculated about what these motives might be, reporting that Saada was interested in running for the Knesset on a right-wing list.

The interview only highlighted the country’s fault line. Those who believe Netanyahu is a crook who should be behind bars cursed Saada for saying what he said, and Segal for interviewing him; while those who dream of a Netanyahu coming back to the Prime Minister’s Office blessed them both.

What the interview did, of course, was keep the Netanyahu case in the news, even though there is currently a break in the trial since the court is not in session. The truth, however, is that the story has never really disappeared from the news – 69 months and running.

What has happened in the interim, however, is that a case that many thought was a slam dunk against Netanyahu – at least that’s how it appeared to many in the early days when the media was being fed leaks by officials investigating the former prime minister – no longer looks so cut-and-dry. As time goes by, black and white turn into gray.

That the case has been carelessly handled by the police and the state prosecutor has sown doubts about the strength of the prosecution’s cases against the former prime minister. Last month, the court refused the prosecution’s request to amend the indictment because a crucial alleged meeting between Netanyahu and key state witness Shlomo Filber may not have taken place, or at the very least did not take place when the prosecution said it did.

This was not the only example of sloppy police and prosecution work in this case – one of the most celebrated the country has ever had.

For instance, Filber testified that he was granted an offer to turn state’s witness and testify against Netanyahu three months before the attorney-general – as he is legally bound to do – approved the investigation of the prime minister.

Another key state witness, Nir Hefetz, testified to the questionable lengths the police were willing to go to extract information and get him to testify.

Hefetz told chilling tales of physical and emotional abuse at the hands of his interrogators. And even before the trial began, the case was polluted by leaks from the investigations that seemed designed to keep the Netanyahu cases very much in the public eye and create public pressure for an indictment.

And now comes Saada, and more questions are being raised. As questions are raised, the opposing sides tend to hunker down behind their preconceived notions. Those who think Netanyahu is a crook hell-bent on destroying the country’s legal system, continue to believe so; those who believe he is a saint who has been railroaded, now have more support for their assumptions.

It never seems to end.

The economy is tanking, prices are skyrocketing, Hezbollah is threatening and Iran is menacing, yet the main issue in this still-young election campaign is Netanyahu, and which parties will and will not join him in a coalition.

Had Netanyahu and the state reached a plea bargain deal months ago, had the president granted him a pardon, then this would have all been over by now and the country would have been able to move on, as the US did after Watergate.

But none of that was to be, and as the Saada interview illustrated this week, the Netanyahu cases will hover incessantly over this country until the trial ends and the court reaches a verdict.

Heaven only knows when that might be.