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On the Street or in the Courtroom?

In the past, Prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu has always avoided launching a frontal attack on the courts. Over the years, he has targeted his criticisms against the law-enforcement agencies – the police, the State Prosecutor and the Attorney General – but never against the courts. On the contrary, his repeated catchphrase has been that the courtroom is where the truth will come out and the fake charges will be refuted. In his words, “There won’t be anything” in the courtroom, “because there wasn’t anything” in reality.

But all good things come to an end. The presumption of innocence that a criminal defendant is willing to extend to his judges, did not last. Netanyahu’s speech before his trial began signifies how it will proceed, that is, along two tracks: the professional deliberations in the courtroom and the populist debate on the street. Netanyahu does not feel safe with only a team of expert attorneys; he also needs the support of ministers, Knesset members and demonstrators. He does not stop with refuting the prosecution’s evidence, but rather, feels that he must fill the air with slogans against it. Netanyahu is exploiting his political power to fan a populist debate in order to influence the professional deliberations,

The prime minister’s agents are trying to entrench a perception among the public that he is facing a political – rather than a criminal – trial. The Minister of Internal Security did not wait for the start of the courtroom proceedings that will determine guilt or innocence. As far as he is concerned, the evidence is no more than background noise, and that this case is really about ideology; that is to say, “the right wing is on trial,” rather than a particular individual. Hence, any outcome other than a full acquittal will be a miscarriage of justice, inasmuch as criminal law is not meant to apply to ideological groups. The chairman of the Knesset coalition went even further and put the matter as bluntly as possible: “We respect the court.” But also: “if the prime minister is not acquitted, we will lose our trust in it.” This is the truth as revealed by a senior member of the Likud: our respect for the court’s verdict is conditional on what it will be.

At the same time, we must also condemn some of Netanyahu’s opponents, for whom ‘the verdict of the public” takes priority over the judicial proceedings. Moreover, the state must agree to his request to allow him to receive contributions to fund his defense, so that he can employ the very best attorneys in the country to beat the prosecution.

We must not display equanimity about the constant leaks from the investigation over the years, which aimed at establishing a kangaroo court. And every fair-minded individual must protest loud and clear against the constant vilification of the prime minister and his family. That said, I tremble when the head of the executive branch accuses the law-enforcement agencies of plotting a coup and allows his supporters to undermine public trust in the judiciary.

ALL ISRAELI citizens who are committed to justice must ask themselves one simple question: Where should Netanyahu’s trial take place – on the street or in the courtroom? The three Jerusalem District Court judges have a very low public profile, and that is the way it should be. They were selected through a professional and non-partisan process, first, to sit on lower courts and, second, to be promoted as they gained experience. Today they are top ranking professionals, who spend their lives sifting through evidence and reaching a verdict of guilt or innocence on the basis of the law. No one knows anything about their ideological preferences, and there is no reason to assume that they have a personal and subjective viewpoint for or against the defendant. This is why we should entrust the decision to them, and them alone.

This is the moment when the prime minister should state publicly that he will accept the judges’ verdict unconditionally – whatever it may be. Of course, he is allowed to criticize it and file an appeal; but it is absolutely unacceptable to allege that it is illegitimate and tantamount to a coup d’état. The ministers who stood mute behind the prime minister, as he spoke before entering the court, must rip off their masks and state in no uncertain terms that it is the court that will decide and not us. Netanyahu’s opponents – in politics, in the media, and in academia – must do the same, should the outcome be a resounding acquittal.

I believe my prime minister when he says that the country has been his life’s mission. He has demonstrated this from the time he served in the General Staff Reconnaissance Unit until this very day. However, now he is deploying his talents against the foremost interests of the country which he himself leads. The emerging strategy of conducting a populist campaign on the streets, in order to weaken the judicial system, will undermine our national resilience. What is more, by his actions today, this man who grew up in a liberal family and rose to lead a glorious liberal movement is degrading the liberal tradition, which holds the rule of law sacred. If Netanyahu aspires to perpetuate his legacy as a national leader who will be revered in the history of Israel, what he is doing now can only desecrate it. Will he come back to his senses?

The artice was published in the Jerusalem Post.