Netanyahu has had his day in court, but what has really changed?

“It can’t be” that one man can be prime minister and stand trial at the same time, it was intoned. Yet here we are.

PRIME MINISTER Benjamin Netanyahu and his codefendants in court on Sunday. (photo credit: AMIT SHABI/YEDIOTH ACHRONOTH/POOL)
PRIME MINISTER Benjamin Netanyahu and his codefendants in court on Sunday.
The picture prominently displayed on the front page of the country’s newspapers Monday morning of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu standing as an accused defendant in the Jerusalem District court, his mouth and nose covered by a blue mask and his eyes cast downward, is one that he tried so hard, for so long, to prevent.
It is also one that his opponents tried so hard, for so long, to make sure would be captured and splashed everywhere. Yediot Aharonot, the paper whose publisher, Arnon “Noni” Mozes, is a codefendant in one of the cases, seemed to take special glee in featuring the photo on its front page, writing above it in large, black letters dripping with schadenfreude: “The defendant rose to his feet.”
And then it was over.
Fifty minutes after entering the courtroom, and after he delivered his j’accuse speech on the courthouse steps surrounded by Likud faithful, Netanyahu exited the courtroom, and won’t have to return until mid-July – and even that is not certain.
And the sun came up the next morning. And the birds chirped. And Netanyahu’s supporters supported him. And Netanyahu’s detractors detracted. And the State of Israel lived to witness another day.
“Lo yachol l’hiyot,” it can’t be, is a phrase overused in the Hebrew language, and one doubly overused when speaking of the Netanyahu saga.
“It can’t be” that a man indicted on charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust can stand for elections, it was said. “It can’t be” that this man, whose party won more votes than any other party in the land, will be mandated with forming a government, it was argued. “It can’t be” that one man can be prime minister and stand trial at the same time, it was intoned. It just can’t be.
Yet here we are. It can be, it did happen, and the sky did not fall. Is it good? Is it healthy? Is it anything any right-thinking citizens would wish for their country? Obviously not, but it does not signify the beginning of the end.
No, Sunday’s trial was not the beginning of the end for Israel. If anything, Sunday’s trial opening was – to quote Churchill in an utterly different context – the end of the beginning of the Netanyahu legal saga.
Netanyahu is now in court. All the doomsday forecasts that Israel’s democracy would be trampled in an attempt to keep that picture of him looking downtrodden in court from being shot, were for naught. The system proved hardy. The State of Israel, its democracy, its checks and balances, its resilience and the solidarity of its people are strong and can withstand even this.
We are only at the end of the beginning of this saga because now the trial starts – now all the evidence must be heard and the witnesses examined and cross-examined. Now it is not only selected leaks that will be in the public domain. Now Netanyahu truly will get his day in court, and the burden falls not on his lawyers to prove he is innocent, but, rather, on the prosecution to prove beyond doubt that he is guilty. Now the real work begins.
AND REACHING this point, as Bar-Ilan University law professor Yedidia Stern wrote last week in a Yediot column, is “no small thing.”
“There are those who are wailing about the status of democracy in Israel, comparing it to half-democratic states like Hungary, Poland and Brazil. This is a wild exaggeration. The opening of the Netanyahu trial, without blinking, is crushing proof of this,” he wrote.
The danger now is that – as a result of the trial – half the country will lose faith in the political process, and the other half in the legal system.
The anti-Netanyahu camp will believe that now every decision the prime minister makes – including fateful life-and-death decisions – will be colored by his trial, and that everything he does, from extending sovereignty to parts of Judea and Samaria to blasting Iranian positions in Syria, will be done with an eye on how it will impact the judges.
And the pro-Netanyahu camp will believe that the court is stacked against him, and that the judges are mere puppets in a system rigged against the Right.
Both positions are overwrought, and what is needed is for good people to give others – even those with whom they disagree adamantly – the benefit of the doubt, not to attribute to the other side the absolute worst intent.
Or, as Stern wrote, “Both sides of the coin – no confidence in the executive branch and no confidence in the judiciary – are not justified. Netanyahu has the benefit of the doubt that he will use his authority as needed and as he swore under oath for the good of the nation. He risked his life as a soldier and dedicated it, as a gifted politician, for the good of all. He must not be suspected of treason to the interests of the state.”
In parallel, he continued, “It is absurd to think that the court – of which no one knows the political positions of its members – is looking to frame the prime minister. We should have full faith in the function of both branches: the judicial and the executive.”
Even in cynical times such as these, it is wise to not always think the absolute worst. No, Yair Lapid, Netanyahu – as the Yesh Atid head ridiculously charged – is not trying to trigger a civil war. No, Netanyahu, the judiciary is not trying to frame you. Neither the prime minister nor the judges are looking to undermine or enfeeble the state. Let’s at least give them that.g