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Sunday, September 20, 2020

Day 1 of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Trial: Scary Times

1. On May 24, history was made in Israel. A sitting prime minister is being tried on corruption charges. Benjamin Netanyahu will sit in court, facing the three justices who will determine his fate — and Israel’s future. But it will take a long time. The May 24 court session was about how long it might take, and not much more than that.

The story of the investigation into Netanyahu and his indictment is long and, by now, quite boring. Three cases, two for breach of trust, one for bribery; state witnesses who worked under Netanyahu; controversial legal precedents; gifts changing hands; meetings with media moguls; shady deals that did or didn’t materialize; preoccupation with media coverage.

The story, as told by prosecutors and supported by undisputed facts, paints a picture of a greedy, obsessive, petty prime minister. But Netanyahu isn’t on trial for being unkind or cheap or paranoid.

Two questions must be considered as Netanyahu defends his reputation, his job and his freedom. A guilty verdict for bribery will send him to prison. First, is there a way to interpret his actions as legal? Second, should he be given the benefit of the doubt because he is the prime minister? Or should he should be judged more harshly because he is the prime minister?

If the answer to the first question is no — and many of Netanyahu’s critics believe that it is indeed no — then the result should be clear: guilty.

If the answer to the first question is yes, then the result becomes a question of legal and political ideology: Should holders of public office be judged more harshly than the general public? Can the justices consider the implications for the public if the prime minister is found guilty?

These are not easy questions to answer. Law, politics and ideology come into play. And because it’s quite difficult to envision a clear-cut verdict that convinces everybody that Netanyahu is guilty or not, the debate isn’t going to end. The debate is an integral part of the trial.

Should holders of public office be judged more harshly than the general public?

2. It is easy to be angry over Netanyahu’s irresponsible incitement against the legal system. As prime minister, he has the responsibility to make sure that the law and its officers are respected by Israelis. He has to ensure that no matter what happens to him personally, the country keeps moving forward. And to move forward, it needs to preserve the rule of law.

It’s also easy to understand Netanyahu’s hard-nosed tactic. According to him, he’s standing trial for political reasons. He believes that a clique within the legal system colluded to remove him from office. He doesn’t think that the clique made an explicit decision to oust him from office but he does believe that their ideological biases against him made them vigilant when looking for any evidence against him and then rigidly interpreted that evidence.

Netanyahu never will be convinced that his actions were illegal. But there is an important question concerning Netanyahu’s supporters. There is a question concerning the prosecution’s and the court’s ability to convince at least some doubters that Netanyahu’s actions justify the legal and political circus about to unfold. Can they make a strong enough case to peel away some of Netanyahu’s support and convince some of his political supporters that his actions were illegal?

This won’t be an easy task. A significant fraction of the Israeli public doesn’t consider the proceedings as Netanyahu’s trial; it considers this as the trial of the legal system. The charges: megalomania, overstepping authority, excessive use of legal force, pushing an ideological agenda. In fact — and there is a vast pool of evidence to prove it — what the public thinks about Netanyahu’s trial is generally analogous to what the public thinks about the legal system. Those who believe that it is a thorough, honest and trustworthy system tend to accept the need for Netanyahu to be prosecuted. Those who disdain the legal system’s motivation and professionalism tend to oppose Netanyahu’s prosecution.

3. Brace yourselves for a long process. The next hearing is slated for July, followed by a verdict and an appeal if Netanyahu is found guilty. Afterward, possibly, other legal and political maneuvers.

This is the end of the beginning — a new phase on a long road. And yet, history has been made. It’s a sad day to see the prime minister standing trial. It’s a reassuring day to see that even a prime minister must face the court. It’s a fascinating day, on which the best and the brightest face one another in battle. And yes, it’s also a scary day, on which mighty forces clash and we, the witnesses, should beware of the fallout.

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