Last week, while Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was dealing with the coronavirus crisis, his associates looked into how his predecessor, Ehud Olmert, managed to get through two criminal trials without ever being photographed in the dock. Others gathered information on the style, habits and rulings of the head of the three-judge panel hearing Netanyahu’s case, Rikva Friedman-Feldman, who is likely to soon replace Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit as the prime target in the shooting gallery. “She wasn’t chosen for this job by chance,” Netanyahu said of her recently, with a tinge of conspiracy theorizing, during a private conversation with another politician. That may have been a hint that she’s the next official who will need bodyguards.
But a smear campaign against her isn’t likely to work. Friedman-Feldman is known in legal circles as an honest judge, and has previously convicted two of Netanyahu’s rivals.
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She was the lone dissenter who favored jail time for former Defense Minister Yitzhak Mordechai following his conviction for sexual assault. She also convicted Olmert of accepting cash-filled envelopes from American Jewish businessman Morris Talansky. Thus it will be hard to accuse her of leftist bias, hidden ties with the prosecution or a vendetta against this prime minister.
But the plain facts sometimes don’t matter to Netanyahu. He faithfully supported the law enforcement system and the war on corruption when Olmert was investigated and tried, yet today in private conversations he describes the prosecution as an existential threat.
Justice Minister Amir Ohana’s announcement, in the dead of night, that the courts would be suspended for 24 hours, signaled that the opening of Netanyahu’s trial would likely be postponed. Shortly afterward, the trial court said it would be postponed until May.
Regardless of whether this stemmed from Ohana’s order or came as an independent decision by the judges out of fear of coronavirus, this delay is highly unlikely to be a dramatic development. It merely provides a slight postponement of the end.
Perhaps Netanyahu will use the breathing space to hire top-flight lawyers. His current legal defense team isn’t particularly skilled, and the only lawyer who has signed documents in his cases in recent weeks is Amit Hadad, who has neither the ability nor the experience to navigate the complex legal defense these cases demand.
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“Netanyahu has acted for months as if he weren’t going to stand trial,” a source close to the prime minister said. “This was evident mainly in that he didn’t hire lawyers who could analyze the tens of thousands of documents and [basically] learn them by heart. No other defendant who was a top politician has taken the enormous risks he is taking.
“Before the elections, I thought he was acting like this because he believed he would form a governing coalition that would grant him immunity so he’d never stand trial, via the French law and the override clause,” the source continued, referring, respectively, to legislation that would bar sitting prime ministers from standing trial, and legislation that would let the Knesset override the Supreme Court when it strikes down laws. “In my view, he’s never abandoned this fantasy,” the source added.
But Netanyahu’s failure to hire top attorneys may have a more prosaic reason – his stinginess. His unwillingness to pay for his legal defense out of his own pocket has prevented him from hiring suitable lawyers.
He’s still waiting for a special permits committee in the State Comptroller’s Office to let him accept millions of dollars for his defense from his tycoon friend Spencer Partrich. Though the committee has already rejected this request three times, State Comptroller Matanyahu Englman has since replaced all its members, and the new committee has been making noises about approving this abomination.
But last week Supreme Court Justice Menachem Mazuz indicated that any such decision was likely to run into trouble. He canceled a hearing that was supposed to take place Sunday on a petition by the Movement for Quality Government in Israel, and asked both the special permits committee and Netanyahu to respond to the petition, which challenged the panel’s decision to discuss the prime minister’s request again even though he hadn’t provided information demanded by the previous committee. Netanyahu’s associates were furious.
Nobody knows whether or not the coronavirus will die down by May, allowing life to return to normal. But it’s altogether clear that until then, any decision that affects Netanyahu’s trial – like Ohana’s decision this week, which seemed reasonable at face value – will be greeted with extreme suspicion.
That’s the price a country pays when its prime minister faces three indictments: Any move by him or his ministers that affects his legal situation, whether directly or indirectly, is seen as a fatally corrupt conflict of interests.