The Ugly Truth Comes Out About Netanyahu’s Trial

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The corruption trial of former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the Jerusalem District Court has been ongoing for the past two months. Things are not going well for the prosecutors.

Israel’s state prosecution submitted a list of 333 witnesses. It frontloaded its best ones. So far, eight have taken the stand. And all of them have obliterated the prosecution’s case. Long-time Israeli jurists and former prosecutors attest that this is the worst presentation of evidence they have ever seen.

For the past three years, Israeli Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit and his colleagues built their case for indicting Netanyahu—a long-serving, successful and popular prime minister—by claiming their star witnesses had given them proof that Netanyahu is corrupt and dangerous.

Through illegal, selective leaks from investigation rooms and prime-time press conferences, the state prosecution insisted that the witnesses had given them incontrovertible evidence that Netanyahu received a bribe, in the form of positive coverage from a news website. Mandelblit claimed that in exchange for the bribe of positive coverage, Netanyahu compelled regulators to provide the owner of the website with a sweetheart deal worth hundreds of millions of dollars.

But over the past two months, as one allegedly “star” witness after another took the stand, each rejected Mandelblit’s contention. Netanyahu, in fact, received hostile coverage from the website in question; his political rivals received supportive coverage.

As for the regulatory favors Netanyahu supposedly afforded the owner of the website in exchange for positive coverage, here too, the witnesses have shattered the narrative. The alleged whistleblower, who purportedly made the claim, testified that Netanyahu had no role in the regulatory apparatus in question. Netanyahu, in short, never asked for anything.

Last week, Netanyahu’s former spokesman and one of his most intimate advisors, Nir Hefetz, took the stand to testify against Netanyahu. When Hefetz signed a deal to become a state witness against Netanyahu in March 2018, Mandelblit and his associates presented the development as nothing short of an earthquake. With Hefetz’s decision to turn on his former boss, they had Netanyahu dead to rights.

After Hefetz turned against Netanyahu, the prosecution’s public campaign against the premier went into high gear. Leaks from interrogation rooms turned into geysers. Friendly journalists were briefed, and they duly reported on Netanyahu’s criminal mindset. The police inspector general weirdly alleged that Netanyahu hired private detectives to tail his police investigators.

As Netanyahu appeared increasingly vulnerable, his government also gradually destabilized.

Hefetz’s testimony last week was a watershed event in the trial for two reasons. First, he laid bare the prosecution’s obsession with “getting” Netanyahu. Under oath, Hefetz described the ill-treatment he received from police investigators at the direction of state prosecutors. Hefetz were arrested in the middle of the night in a Hollywood-type scene, with armed officers nearly breaking down his door. He was held in harsh conditions for two weeks. He was denied food, medicine and sleep. He was placed in a flea-ridden cell. He was housed with violent, convicted criminals and terrorists. Investigators threatened to destroy his family and coerced him into firing his attorney and hiring one they chose for him.

All observers of Hefetz’s testimony have agreed that the treatment he received was illegal. Some have alleged that it was torture. Notably, the prosecutors did not dispute Hefetz’s claims, which he made while he was under direct examination by the very prosecutors his testimony was supposed to assist.

Second, in glaring contrast to the hype that surrounded his testimony, like his fellow “star” witnesses, Hefetz shattered the prosecution’s case. Hefetz said Netanyahu did not intervene with the regulators on behalf of the website owner; that he received hostile coverage from the website; and that he didn’t even consider the website important.

Hefetz’s revelation of his treatment at the hands of the prosecutors showed the public that the prosecutors would stop at nothing to incriminate Netanyahu. Hefetz committed no crime whatsoever, yet prosecutors had him locked up and treated like a terrorist until they broke him. And for their efforts, Hefetz didn’t deliver Netanyahu—he exonerated him.

Even before the prosecution began making its case in court, the legal foundations of the indictments were already flimsy. Mandelblit indicted Netanyahu on four counts in three charges. The most serious count is bribery. As top U.S. attorneys argued in a pre-indictment hearing Mandelblit held for Netanyahu, there is no basis in Israeli law, or in the laws of any other Western democratic legal system, for asserting that positive coverage of a politician by a media outlet is a “bribe.” The assertion itself serves to criminalize both politics and journalism. By defining media coverage as bribery, Israel’s prosecutors arrogated to themselves the power to indict any politician and any journalist whose underlying positions they oppose.

Netanyahu is also charged with breach of trust for allegedly discussing a deal for positive coverage with the owner of Israel’s second-largest circulation newspaper, Yediot AhronotYediot has led public campaigns against Netanyahu since he first entered politics in the 1980s. On the other hand, it has provided lavish coverage to Netanyahu’s political rivals in its long-standing effort to oust him from power.

The deal the two discussed was one in which Yediot would provide Netanyahu with more positive coverage and, in exchange, Netanyahu would appeal to the owner of Israel’s largest circulation newspaper, Israel Hayom, which was supportive of Netanyahu, and convince him to limit his circulation for the benefit of Yediot. (Disclosure: In addition to Newsweek, I also write regularly for Israel Hayom.) But Netanyahu never agreed to the deal. And nothing ever came of it. In the meantime, in 2013, then Minister of the Economy Naftali Bennett and 42 other members of the Knesset voted in favor of a bill, prepared by Yediot‘s lawyers, that would force the outright closure of Israel Hayom. All 43 lawmakers received positive coverage from Yediot. In the wake of the vote, Netanyahu dissolved his government and the Knesset, precipitating new elections, in order to block the bill from advancing through the legislative process.

Whereas the prosecution indicted Netanyahu for breach of trust for speaking to Yediot‘s owner, it refused to even open an investigation against the 43 Knesset members.

Finally, Netanyahu was indicted for breach of trust for accepting gifts from his friends. This, despite the fact that Israeli law permits politicians to receive gifts from friends, and simply requires politicians to return the gifts or pay a fine if the attorney general determines that they weren’t actually “gifts” from “friends” under relevant law.

The problem with Mandelblit’s determination of Netanyahu’s relations with his friends, like his other determinations in relation to the criminal probes he ordered against Netanyahu, is that his motives were always suspect. His obsessive hounding of Netanyahu reeked of ulterior motives.

Last Tuesday, Mandelblit revealed his motives to the public with the broadcast on Israeli television of the transcript of a conversation he had a month ago regarding the Netanyahu trial.

Mandelblit maintained that Netanyahu had to be ousted from power because he was “a danger to democracy.”

Netanyahu endangered Israeli democracy, in Mandelblit’s view, because he sought to impose checks and balances on Israel’s legal fraternity—the Supreme Court justices, the attorney general and the state prosecution office. For the past generation, all three arms of the legal fraternity have arrogated to themselves the powers of the executive and the legislature. Through fiat, they effectively canceled all legislative and executive checks on their power. The most powerful means that the justices and lawyers have used to effectuate their power grab has been their seizure of power from the government to appoint themselves.

Netanyahu posed a threat to “democracy,” by Mandelblit’s telling, because he intended to restore the government’s power to appoint justices and the attorney general, and to impose limits on the powers of the state prosecutors.

Mandelblit referred to the legal fraternity’s fight with Netanyahu as a “war”—indeed, as an existential conflict. His decision to indict Netanyahu was necessitated by the exigencies of that war.

In his words, “This [indicting Netanyahu] is a decision I had a difficult time with…we suddenly found ourselves in a war over the legitimacy of the attorney general, the DNA of the Jewish people and the State of Israel.”

By Mandelblit’s telling, in this fateful struggle, God almighty himself carried the day. “The grace of Heaven saved us from Netanyahu.”

Mandelblit’s shocking statement proved that his case against Netanyahu has nothing to do with the law. It is entirely political. Israel’s attorney general led a coup of lawless attorneys whose single-minded goal was to oust a democratically elected prime minister to preserve the extra-legal powers the legal fraternity has seized over the decades.

Perhaps the most notable aspect of Mandelblit’s statement is that outside of Netanyahu’s Likud party, it elicited no meaningful protest. By and large, the politicians received Mandelblit’s statement in silence. The reason for that is clear enough. Hefetz’s testimony laid bare the brutal truth: Israel’s unelected legal fraternity, which in the name of “democracy” accepts no limits on its power, will stop at nothing to preserve that power. Challenge it, even in a limited manner, and it will destroy you and everyone you love.

Originally published at

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