Netanyahu's trial: How was this never avoided? - analysis

There were so many “exit ramps” before getting to this point, so how did the country get here?

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, wearing a face mask, looks on while standing inside the court room as his corruption trial opens at the Jerusalem District Court  May 24, 2020. (photo credit: RONEN ZVULUN/REUTERS)
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, wearing a face mask, looks on while standing inside the court room as his corruption trial opens at the Jerusalem District Court May 24, 2020.
(photo credit: RONEN ZVULUN/REUTERS)
A lifetime ago when living in northern New Jersey, I often drove further north for work.
Sometimes the correct exit was small and easy to miss.
But there were around five or so exits I could use to avoid the disaster of unnecessarily going over the George Washington Bridge in Manhattan and losing two hours of time.
Keeping that in mind, it was astonishing on Monday being at the Jerusalem District Court, as it became clearer to me than at any time in years that in around a month or so, Israel will endure its first ever full trial, with witnesses galore, against a sitting prime minister.
There were so many “exit ramps” before getting to this point: So how did the country get here?
First, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu could have continued his fighting the media’s coverage of him without adding more interventionist moves. He could have maintained ties with tycoons without leaving a pattern of questionable conduct – both of which led to a criminal investigation and possibly jail time.
Whether innocent or guilty, there was nothing pretty about the prime minister’s conduct, especially in his later terms, despite a much cleaner reputation for most of his career than that of former prime minister Ehud Olmert.
By July 2018, The Jerusalem Post had exclusively reported that Attorney-General Avichai Mandelblit would seriously weigh dropping all of the cases in a plea deal if Netanyahu would step down.
Netanyahu’s early lead lawyer Yaakov Weinroth was very interested in these offers, but his client never was – and when Weinroth died, there was less pressure in that direction.
Still, Netanyahu could have used the February 2019 announcement of intent to indict, the October 2019 pre-indictment hearings and the November 2019 final indictment against him as exit ramps to cut a deal which might have saved him jail time and saved the country a lot of suffering.
The public also could have decided not to keep someone, however talented, in the prime minister’s chair, once indicted.
However, in three elections in 2019 and 2020 and likely in a fourth election in 2021, Netanyahu has maintained a full quarter or more of the voting public behind him – more than any other candidate in three out of four elections (and in the one he lost to Blue and White’s Benny Gantz it was razor close.)

THE LIKUD could have decided not to keep an indicted person, however talented, as its candidate for prime minister – but in the only recent primary, Netanyahu trounced Gideon Sa’ar.
Other political parties, especially the haredi parties, could have decided only to cooperate with the Likud if they replaced Netanyahu with someone who was not indicted – such as Yuli Edelstein or Gilad Erdan.
The High Court of Justice could have disqualified him from running, and there was a legal basis for doing so. But the justices, probably correctly, decided that any good that might do would be outweighed by the permanent harm and stain it would place on them in the eyes of Netanyahu’s millions of supporters.
A deal could have been worked out in which Netanyahu would have stepped down with a presidential pardon in exchange for honoring the prime ministerial rotation agreement with Gantz.
Another deal could have been worked out with Gantz to elect Netanyahu as the next president, replacing Reuven Rivlin in May. This could have given him immunity for seven years, long enough for the case to fade in importance and controversy.
Mandelblit could have indicted Netanyahu on lesser charges, minus bribery. This might have made a deal more possible without a bruising trial, allowing the prime minister to stay in power while accepting fault – like Sarah Netanyahu did in the separate “Prepared Foods Affair.”
But none of this has happened.
Mandelblit indicted Netanyahu on grave bribery charges and he has used a scorched-earth approach to delegitimize the attorney-general and the legal establishment.
The Post reported in November that this likely has ended the possibility of a plea deal without at least some jail time.
But there could still be a plea deal.
Former Olmert top aide Shula Zaken agreed to an 11-month prison sentence on the eve of the Holyland trial verdict, seeing that it could save her from three to five times as long in jail.
Maybe down the line Netanyahu will agree to such a deal.
But not before the country is dragged through a painful and flamboyant legal conflagration like no one has ever seen.
Any remaining exit ramps will have come too late to save Israeli society from this punishing and destabilizing era.