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For much of the world, Mubarak’s trial on Wednesday represents a watershed moment in the history of holding dictators to account for crimes committed against their people. However, in Israeli media outlets, the proceedings - in which one of the nation's reliable allies in the Arab world was wheeled into court on a gurney and put in a cage - mostly elicit disdain and condemnation.
Channel 10 News, Israel’s leading independent news network, emphasizes pro-Mubarak protests during its Wednesday news broadcast and includes an Egyptian woman crying from what she sees as Mubarak’s unwarranted humiliation. Anti-Mubarak protesters, in contrast, are depicted as stone throwing rioters demanding an "immediate verdict”; this image does not accord with reports by international media networks, which have depicted the violence outside the courtroom as clashes between anti- and pro-Mubarak demonstrators.
The trial is a sort of "valium" meant to appease Egyptians who "simply want to sacrifice their leader because the revolution isn’t successful," says Zvi Yehezkeli, leading Arab affairs correspondent at the network.
"There are thousands of unemployed people in Tahrir, the tourist industry is losing money, and the country has lost an estimated US$80 billion," he continues.
In fact, there were very few people in Tahrir as Channel 10 was delivering its report; a three-week-long sit-in had been violently dispersed by Egyptian security forces two days before.
"In these historic moments, there is no justice, there is no wider perspective taken on a leader 83-years old, only the craving for revenge," says Yehezkeli. A just trial would require subpoenaing regime stalwarts such as Omar Suleiman, Mubarak's former chief of intelligence, and Hussein Tantawi, currently head of the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, he says. That will not happen, he argues, because having them testify would implicate them in the same crimes for which Mubarak is accused.
In contrast, Channel 2, Israel’s other popular commercial news network, dwells on Mubarak’s pitiful appearance inside the steel cage. It cites his poor health and previous bout of cancer, but fails to mention misleading reports, put out by some government officials prior to the trial, that Mubarak was hardly alert and unfit to appear in court.
Following the newscast, prominent political commentator Ehud Yaari says that the fact that Mubarak came to trial means that the military leadership “betrayed” their former commander. Tantawi, who has been “nicknamed Mubarak’s poodle, sent his poor boss to that cage,” he says. The military’s decision demonstrates its “weakness” and “lack of self-confidence when confronted by the anger of the Egyptian street.”
For commentator Yael Paz Melmed of Maariv, Israel’s second most popular daily newspaper, the cage takes on a different meaning, one related to justice in post-Mubarak Egypt.
“What has changed in Egypt if the defendants still sit inside a closed cage, humiliated and deprived of basic human respect?” she writes.
She then goes a step further by blasting the West for interfering on Mubarak’s behalf: “During the unrest against Mubarak in February this year, the US hastened to demand his resignation. Why are they, along with the other Western countries, now quiet about how the trial of their decades-long ally should be conducted? It’s not a matter of respect for Mubarak, but also of respect for justice.”
In an op-ed titled "Mubarak Reminds Me of My Grandfather" in Yediot Aharonot, Israel's most popular daily, journalist Nir Cohen compares Mubarak to his ailing grandfather, despite acknowledging that unlike the latter, the Egyptian president was a tyrant who oppressed his people. "Today Mubarak reminded me of my grandfather,” he writes, “for whom it was hard to walk from the living room to kitchen. When I see him, my heart throbs."
Cohen speculates that his sympathy derives “from [Mubarak’s] identity as a sane Arab leader in a jungle, one that didn't call ever so often for destroying Israel, that didn't threaten us with nukes or jihad, that didn't scapegoat us for the world's problems." Cohen’s “jungle” metaphor fits in nicely to Israeli discourse; Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak is noted as saying “Israel is a villa in the jungle.”
Indeed, Mubarak has often been counted on as a friend of Israel. During his 30 years in power, Mubarak remained committed to the peace treaty with Israel signed by his predecessor, Anwar Sadat, in 1979, despite widespread opposition to the treaty in Egypt and throughout the rest of the Arab world. Mubarak also heeded Israel’s request to blockade the Gaza Strip and prevent the movements of goods, especially weapons and cement, into the coastal strip after Hamas came to power there in 2006. In 2008, Egypt began supplying natural gas to Israel by way of an intermediate company controlled by Mubarak’s personal friend. In the charges against Mubarak, prosecutors allege that the deal has cost about US$700 million in lost revenue for Egypt.
This close relationship has not been lost on the Egyptian masses, who overwhelmingly dislike Israel. During the 18-day uprising that led to Mubarak's resignation on 11 February, protesters cheered, “Leave, leave, Mubarak. Tel Aviv is waiting for you."
In addition, Israeli politicians have tried little to hide their warm relations with Mubarak. On 4 February, MK and former Defense Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer announced that Mubarak's ouster would be a “tremendous loss” for Israel, despite the fact that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had warned his government to refrain from making statements about the ongoing revolution. Incidentally, Ben-Eliezer helped facilitate the gas agreement in 2005, when serving as minister of national infrastructure.
Earlier this year, Netanyahu himself reportedly instructed Israeli ambassadors to pressure foreign governments to support Mubarak, and Wednesday morning, Ben-Eliezer said that he had offered Mubarak refuge in Eilat, saying, "he refused because he was a patriot." On Thursday, however, an aide to Netanyahu denied that Israel offered Mubarak political asylum.
Zvi Bar'el, the Middle Eastern affairs analyst for Haaretz, Israel’s leading liberal daily, breaks from Israel’s widespread disdain for the proceedings and commends them in an op-ed titled, “Mubarak on trial/A corrective national experience.”
“It seems that more than vengeance and punishment,” Bar'el writes, “the president's opponents want to restore their national pride.”
He goes on to praise Egyptians for putting the dictator on trial rather than seeking vigilante justice.
“'The people’ did not storm the presidential palace, nor did they tear their leader apart in the street. ‘The people’ ordered him put on trial like any other citizen.”