JERUSALEM—Four years of police investigations, judicial deliberations, stunning leaks, broken promises from politicians, and assaults against Israeli institutions culminated Sunday in a never-before-seen spectacle: the sitting prime minister of Israel standing before a panel of judges who will decide his fate.
Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu, along with three fellow defendants, is accused of fraud, bribery, and breach of trust in three separate cases involving his alleged efforts to control various aspects of Israeli media.
Having done everything within his considerable power to prevent this historic episode from ever taking place, Prime Minister Netanyahu almost got his way.
As his defense attorney Micha Fettman stood to present his case, a glitch in the court’s closed-circuit system left journalists watching a silent judicial pantomime even as they were blasted by the clamor of hundreds of Netanyahu supporters on the street below.
When the prime minister rose before the three-judge panel to state his name and acknowledge that he understood the charges he faces, his voice could not be heard above the din.
Each side, nevertheless, was able to make its case.
Throughout the morning, before proceedings began, Netanyahu allies blasted the judiciary on his behalf. Newly installed parliament speaker Yariv Levin denounced a “nadir in the history of the Israeli judiciary.”
A few minutes before court was gavelled to order, Netanyahu inveighed against the Israeli police, the judiciary and the media in an unprecedented outburst at the courthouse door.
“Never, in the history of any democracy, has anyone been indicted over positive media coverage,” Netanyahu bellowed, quoting Trump attorney Alan Dershowitz, and adding “which I never even benefited from.”
“They can’t defeat a strong, rightwing prime minister at the ballot-box, so they are trying to oust me through stitched-up charges,” he thundered. Surrounded by a cadre of masked ministers from his Likud party, he accused the police, the judiciary and the media of attempting to perpetrate a coup d'état because of his plans to annex part or all of the occupied West Bank.
Netanyahu has long promised to annex parts of the territory claimed by the Palestinian Autho
“I won’t give up a single settlement!” he promised
The media, he said, was running "a Soviet field trial" against him.
The Jerusalem District Court, located in the heart of Arab East Jerusalem, is a plain, antiquated building in which judges preside over tiny, dollhouse-sized rooms reminiscent of American traffic courts.
All shops on surrounding streets were emptied because of Eid al-Fitr, the Muslim holiday, and Salahdin Street, where the courthouse is located, was closed off by police.
Before the megaphones started blasting pro-Likud slogans, the only sound heard was the eerie howl of an unseasonable squall.
Chief Judge Rivka Friedman-Feldman did not give up any reaction, if she had one, but her very presence as Fettman began to address the court was a powerful reminder that Netanyahu, despite his best attempts, is now a defendant in case number 64010. The no-nonsense chief judge sentenced former prime minister Ehud Olmert to jail in 2015 on lesser charges than those Netanyahu faces today.
The hearing lasted an hour. Like his client, Fettman blasted the media for interviewing prosecution witnesses, or, in his words, “influencing court testimony.”
Judge Friedman-Feldman demurred, noting that her court was not part of the media.
“We will not allow them to use public statements to compete with the court,” Fettman said. “We will not allow this to be a circus, instead of a trial. We ask the court to promise that real justice will be made.”
Netanyahu sat throughout the session on the defendant’s bench behind his lawyer.
Aside from his bombast, Fettman’s main tactics seemed to be to ask for delays. He hadn’t yet had time to examine all the prosecution documents, he told the judge. He needed to bring new lawyers on to prepare for the case, and they would have to review all the evidence from scratch.
In the judge’s terse promise to issue a reply to his demands quickly it was evident that for Netanyahu, who has not had to answer to anyone for the length of his 12 years as prime minister of Israel, and for the country, something new has begun.