Netanyahu's split-screen moment: Trial begins as coalition talks continue

At one venue Netanyahu will appear as a defendant, at the other, his party will recommend that he be given the mandate to form the next government.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at his trial, President Reuven Rivlin at the Knesset recommendation ceremony (photo credit: OREN BEN HAKON/POOL AND YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at his trial, President Reuven Rivlin at the Knesset recommendation ceremony
Talk about a split-screen moment.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is scheduled to appear in the Jerusalem District Court on Saladin Street at 9 o’clock on Monday morning to hear lead prosecutor Liat Ben-Ari present opening arguments in the cases of the State of Israel vs Benjamin Netanyahu.
At about the same time, a delegation representing the Likud is scheduled to meet with President Reuven Rivlin to recommend Netanyahu as its choice for who should be tasked with being the first to form a coalition.
At one venue, Netanyahu will appear as a defendant; at the other, his party will recommend that he be given the mandate to form the next government.
As the day wears on, former Walla CEO Ilan Yeshua will testify at the courthouse against Netanyahu in Case 4000, the one dealing with allegations that he gave Walla and Bezeq owner Shaul Elovitch preferential treatment in return for favorable press coverage.
At the President’s Residence, even as Yeshua will be on the stand, Shas, United Torah Judaism, the Religious Zionist Party and maybe Yamina will likely join the Likud in recommending Netanyahu as prime minister.
This has to be some kind of international precedent: a prime minister beginning his trial in earnest and at exactly the same time racking up recommendations to serve yet another term.
The media’s focus – and the country’s attention – will be split between what is happening at the two different sites. Like spectators at a tennis match watching the volley from one side of the net to the other, the public’s collective eyes will bounce from one side of the split screen to the next.
But forget about the public’s focus – the public can handle a split screen. Imagine what it must be like being Netanyahu.
Bodily, he will be forced to be in court, at least for the opening argument – though not through Yeshua’s entire testimony. But where will he be mentally? Will he be following Ben-Ari’s arguments, or wondering what is going on with President Reuven Rivlin and whom Naftali Bennett and Mansour Abbas will recommend to the president?
Will he be focusing on the trial – where his personal destiny hangs in the balance – or doing coalition math in his mind while mentally focusing on the goings-on at the President’s Residence, where his political destiny is being decided?
Netanyahu, over the years, has demonstrated an uncanny ability to compartmentalize: to handle, for example, a meeting in the White House with then-US president Donald Trump in 2018 just hours after receiving a bombshell note from a staffer that one of his closest former aides, Nir Hefetz, had just turned state’s witness against him.
What has always been striking to those who have followed Netanyahu up close is his ability to carry on in the diplomatic arena and on the diplomatic stage as if at home he had not a care in the world. He has demonstrated an uncanny ability to function at the highest levels even as his personal fate seemed so tenuous.
But even for Netanyahu, who for more than four years has had to function with the heavy cloud of a police investigation hanging above, Monday’s start of testimony against him – and the move of the trial to three hearings a week – takes matters to a whole different level.
Now witnesses will testify, and the country will hear reports about the testimony. Now the trial is real: no longer Netanyahu’s camp responding to leaks. It is real people giving real testimony in a real courthouse with Netanyahu’s fate truly on the line.
NETANYAHU WAS obviously pleased last month when this part of his trial was postponed until after the March 23 election. No candidate wants the country to go to the ballot with him or her being in the defendant’s box at that moment, because who knows what will come out of the testimony during the hearings?
While it is quite possible that the country will hear the testimony and decide that it is crazy to run a prime minister out of office for these allegations based on this evidence – especially a prime minister of Netanyahu’s caliber – it is also possible that the testimony will be so dramatic and damaging that even those among Netanyahu’s supporters will conclude that he is no longer fit for office.
So Netanyahu was very fortunate that this part of his trial was postponed until after the election. He was less fortunate, however, when it came to the election results: that there was no conclusive victor, and that the country could be hurtling toward a fifth election. If it does go to a fifth election, it will do so with the prime minister in the defendant’s dock – exactly what Netanyahu was able to avoid the last time around.
How might these hearings impact on a fifth election? Even more immediate, how might the very existence now of the hearings – even though Netanyahu will not physically have to be present at all the sessions – impact his considerations in trying to put together a coalition, or on the calculation of the anti-Netanyahu forces trying to unseat him?
If Netanyahu concludes that going to an election while actively on trial would be a disaster, he may do everything possible – and make extraordinary promises to potential coalition members – to cobble together a coalition of 61, fearful that this really is his last chance.
Likewise, the anti-Netanyahu forces may conclude that the trial is bad for the prime minister, and that as revelations come out in the weeks and months ahead they will only hurt him more, so there is no reason for them to compromise to avoid a fifth election.
In fact, a fifth election might be preferable for them because they might think they will gain ground at Netanyahu’s expense. The Likud fell from 36 seats in March 2020 to 30 last month. Might testimony during the hearings, which may be damning, not bring the Likud down even further?
THOSE ARE all issues on the political front, where Netanyahu will have to divert a great deal of his attention and mental energy, even as his trial is proceeding. But that is not all he will have to face.
Beyond the trial and the seemingly endless political drama, there is a world out there continuing to spin: Jordan is feeling dangerous tremors, the US is to open indirect negotiations with Iran on Tuesday, and Israel has to decide within days how to respond to the International Criminal Court’s decision to prosecute the country for alleged war crimes.
Those are all major issues that need the prime minister’s attention – especially this prime minister, who has centralized decision-making on these types of issues into his hands. He is loath to delegate to others when it comes to dealing with high-stakes diplomatic issues.
Critical decisions will need to be made, and it is safe to assume they will be made. But they will be made with Netanyahu now having to also deal with a trial just under way, and a political crisis that never ends.
The prime minister has shown in the past that he is able to juggle many different balls at the same time. But just because he is able to do it doesn’t mean that it is optimal – either for him or for the country.