Netanyahu’s split screen dramas

The first three days of the evidentiary stage in Benjamin Netanyahu’s trial were a sobering experience for journalists


The Plenary Hall during the swearing-in ceremony of the 24th Knesset, at the Israeli parliament in Jerusalem, April 6, 2021. Photo by Alex Kolomoisky/POOL ***POOL PICTURE, EDITORIAL USE ONLY/NO SALES, PLEASE CREDIT THE PHOTOGRAPHER AS WRITTEN - ALEX KOLOMOISKY/POOL***

April 08, 2021 13:33

The first three days of the evidentiary stage in Benjamin Netanyahu’s trial in Jerusalem’s District Court this week were a sobering experience for journalists. Every established hack has experienced political pressure but the detailed account of the first prosecution witness, Ilan Yeshua, former CEO of Walla, of how his owners had forced him to put Israel’s most popular website at the disposal of the prime minister and his family, was something else.

At one point during the 2015 election, Shaul Elovich (another defendant in the trial), chairman and main shareholder of Bezeq, the telecoms giant that owned Walla, ordered Mr Yeshua not to report statements by opposition leaders or to add their comments to stories quoting the prime minister. When he remonstrated that they would lose all credibility as a news organisation, his employer answered that he didn’t care: “Walla is a gram. Bezeq is a ton.” He needed the prime minister’s good graces and that was the only thing that mattered.

As Mr Yeshua took that stand on Monday, on the other side of town, at President Rivlin’s official residence, representatives of the 13 parties elected to the new Knesset were arriving for consultations on the candidate who would get the first crack at forming a new government. For viewers watching the split-screen reporting on TV, it was like seeing two acts of a play simultaneously.

President Rivlin angered the Likud delegation when he wondered aloud whether “ethical considerations” could be part of his decision upon whom to confer the mandate.

Everyone in the room was aware that when Mr Yeshua was questioned by the police, he had spoken of how, seven years earlier, Mr Elovich had directed him to report favourably on the prime minister’s attempts to delay the presidential election, in the hope of preventing Mr Rivlin, a fellow Likudnik but too independent-minded, from winning.

Later on, when the delegation from Yamina arrived to recommend that their leader Naftali Bennett get the mandate, Mr Yeshua was talking of how he had received “a series of documents” by email, which included information which he was to use in stories attacking Mr Bennett, his wife and his father.

On Wednesday, the third day of his testimony, Mr Yeshua recalled how Mr Elovich said to him after Likud’s surprise victory, “Congratulations, you won him the election.”

But despite President Rivlin’s obvious exasperation, it looked for a while on Monday as if Mr Netanyahu was about to win again. With the opposition split and three parties not endorsing any candidate, the score line in MK recommendations was: Benjamin Netanyahu 52, Yair Lapid 45, Naftali Bennett 7.

The president’s seven-year term ends in three months, and for all his “ethical considerations” on tapping a candidate facing charges of bribery and fraud, he does not want to go down in history as the man who “politicised” the presidency — and so leave office as “president of only half the nation,” as Likud is already branding him. He announced the next day that he was selecting Mr Netanyahu and simply signalled his displeasure by sending the mandate by courier, instead of inviting Mr Netanyahu for the traditional photo opportunity.

But by then, the prime minister’s victory in the battle for the most endorsements was looking rather hollow. The previous evening, Mr Lapid had stunned the political establishment by announcing publicly that he had not only offered to join a government with Mr Bennett and split the prime minister’s term between them, but that Mr Bennet would go first. A leader of a party with only seven Knesset seats serving as prime minister sounds an impossible proposition. But then you would have said the same thing just a couple of years ago about a politician on trial for bribery and fraud serving as prime minister.

Plea bargain time?

The bottom line of three days of testimony in the Netanyahu trial is that the prosecution’s first witness presented a detailed account, backed up by notes and recordings, of how the news organisation he ran was for years put at the disposal of the prime minister and his family. Other witnesses who worked there at the time are expected to back up his testimony. It will be near-impossible for the defence to refute this. There remains, though, one major gap in the prosecution’s case. Mr Yeshua never spoke to Mr Netanyahu, his wife or his son. It was all through intermediaries.

The prosecution still has the two state witnesses, Mr Netanyahu’s former communications chief Nir Hefetz, who will testify how he was sent to apply pressure on Walla, and the senior adviser who was appointed director-general of the communications ministry, Shlomo Filber, who will testify about how he was directed to favour Walla in regulatory decisions. But without a witness testifying to a clear connection between those actions, the defence can still claim it is circumstantial and that no proof exists of a bribery arrangement between Mr Elovich and the prime minister himself.

Which is why, of the 333 potential witnesses for the prosecution (according to the list they presented to the court, although not all will be called to the stand), they chose to call Mr Yeshua first. Under Israeli law, the person who planned to bribe a government official can be convicted while the intended recipient is acquitted. As things stand in court, Shaul Elovich, and his wife who is a co-defendant, are in a worse position than the prime minister.

Mr Elovich will turn 73 next month and the prospect of spending his 80th birthday in prison will have been on his mind when his former employee detailed how he ordered him to destroy evidence.

Not that long ago, he was one of the most powerful men in Israel, controlling the country’s largest communications networks. As he slumped in his chair on the third day of evidence, the prosecutors reckoned they were getting to him. More former employees will be next on the stand and it will keep getting worse. It may be plea bargain time for Mr Elovich.

Bennett’s surprise

Meanwhile, the negotiations clock is ticking. Mr Netanyahu received 52 endorsements, nine short of a majority but, actually, the number of supporters in the Knesset for his potential government is even smaller.

Fifty-seven Knesset members belong to parties which have sworn not to serve in a Netanyahu government under any circumstances. Potentially, if he mends bridges with Naftali Bennett, he can reach a 63-seat majority — but that is only with the support of the four Ra’am MKs, who need to either support the coalition or abstain in its initial confidence vote, which can then pass 58-57. But the six members of the far-right Religious Zionism list insist that they won’t support such a government.

Religious Zionism leader Bezalel Smotrich explained on Wednesday in a tweet that being part of a government relying on Ra’am’s votes would legitimise the Arab parties, and that would mean “one short term for the right-wing (which won’t be able to do anything) followed by many years of Arab-left-wing rule.”

If the far-right won’t help, Mr Netanyahu is left with just his Likud and the two strictly-Orthodox parties, Shas and United Torah Judaism, who are prepared to support him. In the consultations with President Rivlin, the representatives of both parties insisted they would only support a government led by Mr Netanyahu. But in their private meetings with the prime minister on Tuesday and Wednesday, they were less emphatic.

Yet another election in the autumn would mean Israel will have gone three years without a new budget. One of the many financial implications would be woefully insufficient funding for the growing strictly-Orthodox education system and other needs of the community. In such a case, they warned him, they would not rule out a Bennett government.

April 08, 2021 13:33

Want more from the JC?

To continue reading, we just need a few details...

Want more from
the JC?

To continue reading, we just
need a few details...

Get the best news and views from across the Jewish world Get subscriber-only offers from our partners Subscribe to get access to our e-paper and archive