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Could Netanyahu’s battle in court also be a conflict of interest?

He is charged with bribery, breach of trust and fraud, accused of performing official favours worth a great deal to wealthy businessmen in exchange for two kinds of gifts. The material ones, including expensive cigars and Champagne, ran to hundreds of thousands of dollars in value, prosecutors said. The less-tangible ones — control over how he was covered by two leading news outlets — were, to a polarising and image-conscious politician, priceless.

If, God forbid, we have a war, is it going to be because there is a security threat, or because this is going to be a wag-the-dog kind of moment?

Yuval Shany

The trial is expected to last a year or more, with the first witnesses not expected to testify for months. If convicted, Netanyahu, who has long maintained his innocence, could face years in prison.

For Israel and its young and malleable democracy, putting the most powerful man in the country on trial may seem like a statement about the resilience and fairness of government institutions.

“It’s a sign of strength,” Sima Kadmon, a political columnist at daily newspaper Yediot Ahronot, said. “In spite of everything, Benjamin Netanyahu is going on trial today.”

But others say that Netanyahu’s decision not to step aside, as predecessors Yitzhak Rabin and Ehud Olmert had done when under investigation, was a national badge of shame and exposed a grave weakness that could become more critical the longer the trial lasts.

Professor Shlomo Avineri, a political scientist at Hebrew University, said that Israel was confronted by a host of serious challenges, both long-standing and new, but that Netanyahu’s trial would prove to be as much of a distraction from those as the investigations that led up to it.

“It’s going to haunt the system,” Avineri said. “This is not what public discourse should be about. And this is going to continue for some time.”

Worse, government experts warn, if the accusations against Netanyahu boil down to conflicts of interest, those are nothing compared with the perceived conflicts that could arise when the prime minister is simultaneously leading the nation and fighting for his freedom.

“If, God forbid, we will have a war, is it going to be because there is a security threat, or because this is going to be a wag-the-dog kind of moment that you want to disrupt public opinion?” said Professor Yuval Shany, a legal scholar at Hebrew University and the Israel Democracy Institute.

Such doubts could extend to matters large and small: appointments, appropriations, even the response to the coronavirus, experts say.

“Every decision will be suspect; every move will be suspicious,” wrote Yaakov Katz, editor of The Jerusalem Post.

Israelis protest in support Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu near the district court on May 24, 2020 in Jerusalem, Israel.

Israelis protest in support Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu near the district court on May 24, 2020 in Jerusalem, Israel. Credit:Getty Images Europe

Shany said there was a “basic incompatibility” between Netanyahu running the government and “fighting as a defendant, and fighting very aggressively and maybe very effectively, in order to weaken the authorities of government that are prosecuting him”.

On the eve of the trial, Netanyahu’s allies in the Likud party stepped up that attack, denouncing the attorney general as a criminal and saying that anything short of an acquittal would devastate the public’s faith in the justice system.

In an extraordinary scene, Netanyahu arrived inside the courthouse Sunday and delivered a fiery broadside denouncing the case against him, calling it “an attempt to thwart the will of the people an attempt to bring me and the right down.”

With mask-wearing Likud ministers arrayed behind him, Netanyahu said he would not be cowed.

“They don’t mind if some sort of obedient right-wing poodle comes instead, but I am not a poodle,” he said, before entering the cramped courtroom .

Nahum Barnea, an influential columnist for Yediot Ahronot, observed that Mr. Netanyahu’s goal was “to delegitimize the prosecution and the judges before the trial has even begun”.

After the volley from Likud ministers, he predicted, a social-media barrage led by Netanyahu’s son, Yair, would come, and then “the mobs will head into the street and might even overrun the court”.

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So Barnea sought instead to douse the flames of the culture war.

“It isn’t Jesus who is being tried, and it isn’t Pilate who is handing down the verdict,” he wrote. “Relax.”

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Source: Sydney Morning Herald

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