On April 5, as lead prosecutor Liat Ben-Ari started opening arguments in the case of the State of Israel vs Benjamin Netanyahu and called former Walla CEO Ilan Yeshua as her first witness, across town from the Jerusalem District Court another drama was unfolding.
There, at the President’s Residence, the heads of the various parties were consulting with then-president Reuven Rivlin and telling him whom they believed should be charged with the task of forming the next government.
The nation’s television screens were split: On one side were images of Netanyahu at the first day of the evidentiary stage of his trial, and on the other side was footage showing Likud parliamentarians – at least one who had come directly from the courthouse where he went to support the party leader – telling Rivlin that Netanyahu should be given the first chance of forming a government.
That split-screen was surreal.
Seven-and-a-half months later, Monday was another banner day in the Netanyahu trial: the beginning of the testimony of Nir Hefetz, the state’s star witness against Netanyahu. Like that day in April, Netanyahu attended part of Monday’s session as well.
And Hefetz didn’t disappoint.
Hefetz, who served for years as Netanyahu’s chief spokesman and media adviser, drew a picture of Netanyahu consumed by the media coverage of him and his family; devoting as much time to it – in Hefetz’s telling – as to the country’s security issues. When it came to the media, said the former prime minister’s close confidant turned state’s witness, Netanyahu was a “control freak.”
This first day of testimony provided plenty of copy for headlines, just as Yeshua’s did. It is certain, however, that as Hefetz’s testimony draws on for days and weeks, followed by careful cross-examination that will try to poke holes and show inconsistencies in the testimony, the public interest will wane, just as it did with Yeshua’s testimony.
But not yet.
For a moment there was a sense of déjà vu on Monday, with the nation focusing intensely on Netanyahu and his legal woes, as it did for months and even years before the trial started.
For a long time, the public agenda was dominated by Netanyahu and the charges against him. Everything seemed to revolve around this; all the government did, or didn’t do, was filtered through the prism of Netanyahu and Cases 1000, 2000 and 4000.
Was the country going to new elections because of an incoming indictment? Did the IDF strike in Syria to try to push off a trial? How would an impending trial impact the government’s decision-making vis-à-vis the Gaza Strip?
Hefetz painted a picture of Netanyahu obsessed with the media, and one can argue that this obsession led to his downfall. Yet, the media became obsessed with Netanyahu and the cases against him as well.
Netanyahu and his cases dominated the news and the national discussion. It created a new fault line in the country. No longer was the country divided along Right-Left or religious-secular lines, but all of a sudden the divide was over whether Netanyahu was guilty or innocent, being hounded or pursued justly, should step aside, or could continue serving as prime minister.
UNTIL APRIL 5. That day marked not only the beginning of the evidentiary sage of Netanyahu’s trial but also the beginning of the end of Netanyahu’s reign as prime minister.
On the same day that Yeshua began testifying, Netanyahu got the nod from Rivlin to try – for the fourth time in two years – to form a coalition. When he failed 28 days later, Rivlin turned to Lapid, who was able to form a government largely because of Netanyahu’s trial being held simultaneously.
The diverse parties which teamed up to join the coalition and unseat Netanyahu, despite wide ideological differences separating them, did so in no small part because of the trial and the belief that having that split-screen running for months – the trial of Netanyahu on one side of the nation’s collective television screen, and him running the country on the other – was unhealthy and detrimental for the state.
On June 13, a new government was sworn in, and slowly the focus started to shift. Netanyahu’s trial continued but did not attract the same attention. The atmosphere in the country was less electric, somewhat less polarized. Suddenly not everything was about Netanyahu.
Until Monday. Then, for a brief moment, it all returned: the Likud MKs in the courthouse, the bullhorns on the street, the learned commentary on the airwaves – based on three hours of testimony – on whether the former prime minister is a criminal or a man unjustly accused.
Unlike in the past, however, this time the developments inside the court seemed of somewhat lesser consequence. Sure, they remain of tremendous consequence to Netanyahu – if found guilty he could face real prison time. They are also of tremendous consequence for the legal establishment – if Netanyahu is acquitted it will be nothing less than an earthquake, with people bound to ask, justifiably, how an innocent man was hounded from office.
But for the state, the trial does not have the same earth-shattering significance it once did.
Why? Because it is one thing if the man on trial is the prime minister making life-and-death decisions under the shadow of a prison term hanging over his head, with the question always being asked how that could impact the decisions he makes.
And it is quite another thing if the defendant is “only” the head of the opposition, still very much in the public’s eye, but away from the table where those life and death decisions need to be made with a clear head, void – to the greatest extent possible – of extraneous considerations or at least the perception of extraneous considerations that could cloud one’s vision.