NEWS REPORT Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appeared in the Jerusalem court this morning as the opening stages of his corruption trial got underway.
NEWS REPORT The trial centers around three cases, case 1000, in which he is said to have received a continuous supply of champagne and cigars from two businessmen. In return, it said he acted for the benefit of one of the businessmen. Case 2000 involves positive coverage from a media tycoon. In return, it's alleged Mr. Netanyahu offered to restrict the circulation of a rival paper and case 4000. The most serious, it's alleged that he promoted regulatory decisions that favored a telecoms company. [END CLIP]
ILYA MARRITZ According to Yael Friedson, the legal and Jerusalem affairs correspondent for Haaretz, Israel has been here before.
YAEL FRIEDSON It's not something to be proud about, but there were quite a few. But I think I would refer to two top cases, the former president, Moshe Katsav, who was convicted of rape. And Ehud Olmert, who was the former prime minister before Benjamin Netanyahu, who was convicted for bribery. Both of them were in jail for that.
ILYA MARRITZ What effect did it have on the Israeli public?
YAEL FRIEDSON Well, in the case of Katsav, since it was rape, it was more an embarrassment. He was like the first president going on trial. When it came to Ehud Olmert. His reaction was totally different from Benjamin Netanyahu. Once the attorney had announced that they are going to file against him, he signed out of office. Benjamin Netanyahu was fighting it. He didn't think he needed to resign. And he's out of office only because there were elections in Israel. And actually it's causing a major political problem because there are many parties who refuse to sit in a government under a politician who has an ongoing trial.
ILYA MARRITZ I know that you've been attending Netanyahu's recent trials. I believe you may have been in court today. We're recording this on a Wednesday, is that right?
YAEL FRIEDSON Yeah. Yeah. First of all, Benjamin Netanyahu hardly ever comes to the hearing. He comes only to major witnesses and only the beginning. And his attitude is that it's nothing of his business. You know, let the lawyers do the job. I was covering Ehud Olmert's trial. He came to every hearing. He was really involved. When Netanyahu comes to court. He makes sure that he won't be photographed while he's sitting down. He always stands up.
JAMES D. LONG Why is that?
YAEL FRIEDSON Because he doesn't want to look as if he's sitting for his trial. He's just someone who comes to court, but it doesn't have to do with him.
ILYA MARRITZ And what's it been like for you? Just being in the room when that happens.
YAEL FRIEDSON First of all, it's weird because as a journalist, I covered him for many years. I used to see him in press conferences. I've seen him with Obama. I've seen him with Trump. I've seen him in many different situations. And it's really weird to see him in court like everyone else. I have to say that. Also very intense because his supporters come to court and they're actually following photographing the journalists who are covering. It's like you need a look around who might be peeping into your screen. You notice if you're talking to the attorneys so they can photograph you as evidence of the attorneys that are plotting with the media. And that is something I've never experienced covering any trial.
ILYA MARRITZ According to prosecutors. He gave perks or favors worth close to $500 million or 1.8 billion shekels to an Israeli telecommunications company in return for positive coverage. We don't know where it's going to end, but where this is headed. Benjamin Netanyahu's reputation may be tarnished, but also the media's reputation could be tarnished.
YAEL FRIEDSON Oh, definitely. Because it's just showing how the coverage was edited and changed for the interests of the publisher. It's like dividing the Israeli society between those who think that someone who's been accused can't be prime minister and those who feel that there was something undemocratic about accusing a prime minister and trying to put him out of his office, not by elections.
ILYA MARRITZ Because prosecutors are making decisions about who to charge and judges are making decisions about how things go – that that is undemocratic.
YAEL FRIEDSON They feel that there was a plot here against Netanyahu in order to take him out of office. They don't believe the charges and that you shouldn't do it anyway against a prime minister who is still in office. Like, if you want to accuse him, do it after he's out of office.
ILYA MARRITZ Is it possible to say whether the Israeli people believe more strongly now in their justice system. Or do more of them tend to think that it is rigged or biased?
YAEL FRIEDSON Listen, in every case, there are sometimes mistakes, especially with these huge cases. There's 330 witnesses. This trial loads of paperwork. It's natural that there would be some mistakes. But in this case, every small mistake is presented as huge and terrible. And you know that it's not a mistake it's part of the plot. The credibility of the attorney is questioned all the time.
ILYA MARRITZ Netanyahu is not only on trial, but he's also running to become prime minister again. What would happen with Benjamin Netanyahu's trial if he is elected prime minister again?
YAEL FRIEDSON It's a big question if he would try to influence or interfere. Some of his party members have already announced that if they will be elected, they would fire the attorney general. That's a threat over democracy. It's scary in a way, I have to say, thinking of what might happen, what actions he might take. Again, the whole legal system.
ILYA MARRITZ It sounds like Israel is way out ahead of the United States in terms of prosecuting former leaders and exploring all of these uncomfortable spaces. What do you think Americans can learn from what's happened in Israel?
YAEL FRIEDSON One of the things that I regret that didn't happen there was at some point Netanyahu's lawyers were negotiating for a plea deal, and it was very controversial in Israel. And people were feeling that in such a case, you can go for a plea deal. You want the court to listen to all of the evidence and then in the end decide if he's guilty or not guilty, but without conspiracies that he agreed for a plea deal only, you know, because he was forced to. But looking backwards, I think that it would be better for Israel if Netanyahu would have got a plea deal, because I feel that it doesn't matter what evidence are shown in court. Whoever supports Bibi just supports him and whoever is against him is against him. And this whole trial just inflames the public atmosphere while it's going on and it could go on for years. So I hope that in America, if they do file against Trump, that he won't fight till the end, but it would be as quick as possible.
ILYA MARRITZ Okay. Yael Friedson is the legal and Jerusalem affairs correspondent for Haaretz. Yael, thank you so much.