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Israel vs. Benjamin Netanyahu: The circus is just beginning

Likud MKs applaud Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ahead of his first trial hearing on Sunday
(photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)

Netanyahu highlighted the way he’s different from many other defendants in his opening remarks, calling for all the hearings to be broadcast live online.

The first day of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s trial was nothing short of a circus.

Normally, an arraignment hearing is pretty boring. The defendant has to say that he has seen the charges and understands them, the defendant pleads innocent or guilty, the defendant’s lawyers complain the prosecution didn’t give them all the materials they need, and a schedule is set for witnesses’ testimony. That happened this time, as well.

But the crowds protesting outside the courthouse, the media jostling to get into the courthouse and to get the best angles outside it, the Holocaust survivors who braved leaving their houses while coronavirus is still around to express their support inside the building, the gathering of half of Likud’s MKs to back Netanyahu up, the photo of Netanyahu standing in the defendant’s bench with his mask on; it all made for a colorful event that provided the media with hours of coverage even though the hearing itself was only about 50 minutes long.
This display certainly didn’t add to the court’s dignity or inspire respect from the public. It was almost enough to make someone take the accusations of a show trial seriously.
The argument can be made that the court is just doing its normal job and that it is Netanyahu and his supporters who are turning the proceedings into a show.
Perhaps that is so. But for a judiciary that is supposedly concerned about the public’s disrespect for it and for democratic values, it could have avoided this all very easily.
Last week, Netanyahu’s lawyers asked for the prime minister to be allowed to skip the hearing.  The court rejected the motion, and their response was similar to the “Bouzaglo test.”
Former Supreme Court president Aharon Barak came up with the “Bouzaglo test” when he was attorney-general, saying “the law for Yadlin is the same as the law for Bouzaglo.” Yadlin was Asher Yadlin, a candidate for Bank of Israel president who was well connected in the then-dominant Labor Party. The name “Bouzaglo” was meant to represent the Israeli everyman, specifically those of Middle Eastern or North African descent, as opposed to the elite.
The courts say the law should be the same for Netanyahu as anyone else. And that’s true when it comes to their adjudication of his three corruption cases.
But they also can’t be so deluded as to think that Netanyahu, the first ever sitting prime minister to be on trial for criminal charges, really is the same as everyone else. When Bouzaglo is on trial, he isn’t going to be followed by a long line of flashbulbs. When there’s a picture of Bouzaglo in the paper, it won’t be viewed as a victory by the State Attorney’s Office. Because when Bouzaglo is on trial, it isn’t generally contributing to a long-running deterioration in a large sector of the public’s trust in the judiciary or viewed as an assault by the judicial branch on the executive.
Netanyahu also highlighted the way he’s different from many other defendants in his opening remarks calling for all the hearings to be broadcast live online, when so many try to keep proceedings behind closed doors.
Interestingly, Netanyahu made his remarks before he knew that the prosecution would agree for him not to have to appear in future hearings. He risked having repeated, humiliating photo-ops of him sitting on the defendant’s bench.
Yet, seeing the way things played out on Sunday – and perhaps the reactions to Supreme Court hearings broadcast live in recent weeks – it’s clear that he was betting on there being a split in the court of public opinion.
“Sunlight is the best disinfectant,” the prime minister said, and he is right. More transparency is a positive thing, though one may doubt his sincerity in saying so, since Netanyahu was caught on a hot mike agreeing to bar journalists from asking him questions at the start of the cabinet meeting only hours earlier.
Instead, Netanyahu is turning the Bouzaglo test on its head. If the court is going to make him jump through the same hoop as everyone else, he’s going to challenge them, as well.
There are many more months ahead to the proceedings of The State of Israel vs. Benjamin Netanyahu, which means many more chances for him to make plays for his supporters. Netanyahu may not have to show up to the courthouse for the following hearings, but the circus isn’t over yet.


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