1. The State of Israel vs. Benjamin Netanyahu
History was made Sunday in an over-crowded, bare-walled room in Jerusalem’s district court building. A defendant, facing charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust, took his seat and acknowledged, in front of the three-judge panel and the entire State of Israel, that he had read the charges and fully understood them.
After an hour of some wrangling between the attorneys over timetables and scheduling, the defendant left the courtroom and headed back to work at the prime minister’s office, a short drive away.
The defendant, Benjamin Netanyahu, is Israel’s longest-serving prime minister who had just formed his new government, marking the beginning of his fifth term in office.
For his supporters, hundreds of them demonstrating outside the courthouse, Sunday’s hearing epitomized their long-standing claim: that Israel’s law enforcement authorities, prosecution and the press have all ganged up on a successful prime minister in order to achieve what they couldn’t reach in the ballots–overthrowing the right-wing government.
For Netanyahu’s critics and detractors, many of whom also gathered outside, it was a moment of redemption, proof that their claims that Netanyahu is corrupt and unworthy of office are getting their day in court.
And for the majority of Israelis, watching the live broadcast from their home or workplace, it was a confusing event: Have they witnessed the ultimate expression of the rule of law and of legal equality, or has their beloved country just entered a perilous process that could split the nation and put into question its democratic future?
2. Who said it? Trump or Netanyahu?
Moments before entering the courthouse, Netanyahu paused for a carefully orchestrated media appearance that will shape the parameters of this legal battle for years to come.
Flanked by a half dozen Likud cabinet ministers, all appropriately covered with facemasks, Netanyahu delivered an attack on Israel’s justice department, police and prosecution, on all those who had a hand in bringing him to this moment.
Watching from overseas, it’s hard to avoid the parallels to similar attacks, voiced and tweeted from the White House, aimed at the same elusive “deep state” made up of secretly left-leaning bureaucrats bent on depriving ordinary people of their choices and free will:
– A day after Trump embarked on yet another Twitter rant against his former attorney general Jeff Sessions (who he himself appointed and who is running in Alabama to return to the U.S. Senate) Netanyahu lashed out at his own AG, Avichai Mandelblitt (whom Netanyahu handpicked for the job) insinuating that there are certain “secret tapes” locked up in a safe, that could reveal Mandelblitt’s ulterior motives.
– Just as Trump has former FBI director James Comey (asked by Trump to remain in his position) to accuse of mangling investigations and targeting an honest president, Netanyahu has former chief of police Roni Alsheikh (who, you guessed it, was appointed by Netanyahu) to blame for corruption and of “contaminating” the investigation.
– Trump has made a point of maligning whistleblowers who have spoken out against him, and Netanyahu, in his Sunday speech, took a swipe at a former top aide turned state’s evidence, hinting of an untold extramarital affair he may have had.
Swap the names, and it’s hard to tell if you’re listening to Netanyahu’s courthouse rant or reading a late-night Trump twitter thread.
Both leaders share not only similar views on the Middle East and of global policies, but also a deep sense of alienation, of feeling at war with a real or mythical establishment monster constantly threatening their achievements.
These beliefs, regardless if motivated by political tactics or by deep-seated ideology, are what make the accused Israeli prime minister and the recently acquitted American president so similar in their struggle and in their messaging to the masses who brought them to office.
3. For Netanyahu—time to act, or to turn focus inwards?
Faced with a lengthy legal battle, and with a term scheduled to end in 18 months, when he is bound by agreement to rotate positions with Benny Gantz, Netanyahu now needs to make a decision:
Should he focus inwards, spending his time in court battles and his energy on rallying supporters to take on the “deep state” establishment that wishes to see him behind bars, or should he, instead, go for last-minute bold moves that would shape his legacy and role in history?
An obvious legacy move would be annexing parts of the West Bank, a step that would put Netanyahu in line with Israel’s most consequential leaders (think Ben Gurion, Rabin) whose actions changed the course of the nation’s history.
Taking on both battles is possible but could prove risky for Netanyahu.
For his supporters on the right and center-right, annexing the territories would be a win of historical proportions, making Netanyahu an indispensable leader worth protecting even if it means battling the entire legal system.
But what if he tries and fails? Well, in that case there could be some in his camp who would sit back and watch a quiet transfer of power from Netanyahu to another Likud candidate, one who is not embroiled in an ongoing criminal trial.
4. The Biden factor
Even under a Trump administration, annexation is no walk in the park for Netanyahu. And as former vice president Joe Biden made clear in his virtual meeting with Jewish donors this week, if Democrats come to power, it would be practically impossible. Biden stated, in no uncertain terms, that he does not support annexation and that he will oppose unilateral moves, whether coming from the Israeli side or from the Palestinians.
And what about the promises made by Trump to Israel in his “deal of the century” peace plan?
“The fact is, I will reverse Trump’s undercutting of peace,” Biden said, speaking in general about Trump policies he deemed as contradicting a two-state solution.
This makes Bibi’s choice crystal clear: an annexation decision could only happen between now and November 3. If Democrats win, the annexation window will close for years to come. (And it will happen even before the swearing in of a new president, as it is hard to see Gantz, as well as moderate Likud members, approving a lame-duck move that is so clearly opposed by the incoming president.)
5. A timetable stretching years ahead
A word of caution:
Recent events in Israel—from forming a new coalition, to pushing forward annexation and to seeing Netanyahu occupy the defendant’s bench—have been dramatic and are evolving quickly.
But the process, especially the legal one, is bound to be excruciatingly long.
With hundreds of witnesses and thousands of pages of evidence, Netanyahu’s trial schedule will be measured in months and years. The first substantial hearing is probably a year away, a final decision could take two years. And then another year or two for a Supreme Court appeal.
What will the Middle East look like four years from now? What shape will the Israeli political arena have? Who will sit in the White House? Will we still be wearing face coverings and greeting each other with elbow bumps?
It’s a long process, and until it ends, Netanyahu, needless to mention, is innocent.