Thank God there is a trial for Benjamin Netanyahu - opinion

As the trial proceeds more malpractice will surely be revealed and in the process more and more open-minded people will comprehend the significance of the trial and what led to it.

 THEN-PRIME MINISTER Benjamin Netanyahu arrives for a hearing in his trial at the Jerusalem District Court last February.  (photo credit: REUVEN KASTRO/FLASH90)
THEN-PRIME MINISTER Benjamin Netanyahu arrives for a hearing in his trial at the Jerusalem District Court last February.
(photo credit: REUVEN KASTRO/FLASH90)

Netanyahu was Israel’s longest serving prime minister, some say its best, others beg to differ, but all should know that the trial is much bigger than Benjamin Netanyahu. The ramifications of the trial will be transformational. Some already are.

Israel’s legal system is critically ill. Once a pillar of esteem and international respect, its status has dwindled over the decades and has now reached an all-time low in public confidence; few trust the system. Netanyahu was unable or unwilling to cure the legal system during his years in power. If he endures the grind and prevails in the battle of his lifetime, Netanyahu’s contribution to Israel’s justice system will outweigh many of his other achievements.

The historical significance of curing Israel’s legal system, that in many respects has relegated democratic processes over the years, may outweigh the significance of the American declaration of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, the American recognition of the Golan Heights being part of Israel, the US’ legitimization of Jewish settlements in Judea and Samaria, the overhaul of Israel’s once socialist economy into a free market, and the four pacts forged with moderate Muslim states in search of a pragmatic and prosperous peace for the people in the region.

Fixing Israel’s broken legal system might even be more significant than mitigating the horrors of the Oslo Accords and the Palestinian terrorism it enabled.

A durable democracy in the Middle East is almost as important as denuclearizing Iran. Both are indispensable for the Jewish state’s future.

An Israeli flag [Ilustrative] (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)An Israeli flag [Ilustrative] (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)

The phishing began in early 2016 and continued throughout 2017, when suspects in unrelated investigations were interrogated by the police about rumors concerning Netanyahu in an effort to find evidence against him. Initiating investigations against a prime minister in Israel requires attorney-general authorization and it is not a mere technicality.

In 2018, three of Netanyahu’s close aides were illegally coerced by the police to become state witnesses against him. In 2019, as national elections approached, a tidal wave of illicit and slanted leaks from the Attorney-General’s Office was broadcast nightly. Shai Nitzan, the former state prosecutor and incoming rector of the National Library condescendingly said at the time that, “I gather people will not want to vote for a candidate suspected of bribery.”

In 2020, a half-baked indictment that has subsequently been revised three times was filed against the prime minister on the very day he presented a historic peace proposal along with the sitting president of the US at the White House. And in 2021, a revised indictment was once again filed on the eve of the elections.

The Attorney-General’s Office is not evil by design. There are good people there who devote their career to public service. They probably think they did what’s best. So did Israel’s intelligence and political leadership in October 1973 prior to the Yom Kippur War. Conceptions were blatantly wrong in both cases. The more recent case may be more consequential.

As the prosecution acknowledges, there is no direct evidence against Netanyahu. After the key witnesses have now taken the stand it seems that circumstantial evidence is also nonexistent. The charges in this case are unprecedented in democratic societies and the justification given by the incoming National Library rector that “you have to start somewhere” is not comforting.

In 1933, on the backdrop of the Haim Arlosoroff murder trial and upon Benzion Netanyahu’s urging, Rabbi Natan Mileikowsky examined the facts of the case. Convinced that it was a “witch hunt trial,” he went to see the distinguished chief Rabbi Avraham Kook, in an effort to convince the great rabbi to speak out against the great injustice. When the chief rabbi took a public stand, public opinion and the judiciary process shifted, and the defendants were eventually acquitted.

There is no Rav Kook figure in Israel today. Anyone who treasures the Jewish state and its democracy should be attentive to the trial and thankful that Netanyahu passed on the plea bargain reportedly offered by the attorney-general. A bargain would exempt Netanyahu from prosecution but distance him from public service. It would likely be a deal similar to the ones the attorney-general cut with former ministers Yaakov Litzman and Aryeh Deri on the last legs of the attorney’s tenure.

Had Netanyahu accepted what any regular (or “reasonable”) person would have, he would have saved himself and his family years of tortuous trials and made millions, maybe more, in the private market. Who could blame a seasoned statesman who has relentlessly served his country for over 50 years, including 15 years as prime minister, for taking a break? Some would say that is systematic extortion, but a large majority of cases in Israel end in a plea bargain – saving the defendant years in court, millions in legal fees and thousands of working hours for the legal system. So why not?

Thankfully, Netanyahu is not a regular person. Had he taken the deal we would probably have never known about potentially criminal leaks. We would have never known of the illegal measures applied in the course of interrogating possible state witnesses. We would have never known that the Attorney-General’s Office refrained from revealing to Netanyahu’s defense attorneys exonerating evidence that it was legally compelled to provide. The trial has revealed astonishing acts of malpractice. 

As the trial proceeds more malpractice will surely be revealed and in the process more and more open-minded people will comprehend the significance of the trial and what led to it.

It’s a shame the trial is not televised. Transparency would do wonders. Former US Justice Louis Brandeis would surely have permitted such a request. Fortunately, there are independent journalists, not employed by mainstream media, who are providing daily reports and protocols. The reports are numbing. The illicit leaks, the poisonous fruit obtained, and the concealment of exonerating evidence were probably not a result of the attorney-general’s directive but, based on experience, any transparent investigation into the issue would have surely been avoided or suppressed. 

Thank God there is a trial. 

The trial will not be able to reveal what would have happened had there been no witch hunt. What would Netanyahu and his government been able to achieve had the attorney-general refrained from going on this wild six-year goose chase? Would Israel still have been a world leader in confronting COVID-19 with a top vaccination rate and low number of infections? Would the US have refrained from appeasing Iran? Would the Abraham Accords have been expanded to include Saudi Arabia and other Muslim states? 

Those questions and many more will be left to hypothetical historians or for the next time Netanyahu is elected prime minister.

The writer is a lawyer and holds a PhD in International Relations. He is the author, most recently, of Targeted Killings, Law and Counter Terrorism Effectiveness, a research fellow at the Counter Terrorism Institute (ICT) at Reichman University in Herzliya and a founder of Acumen Risk Ltd. The views expressed here are his own.