Will Israeli Judge Rivka Friedman-Feldman convict her 2nd PM, Netanyahu?

No. 9 on The Jerusalem Post's Top 50 Most Influential Jews of 2022: Jerusalem District Court Judge Rivka Friedman-Feldman.

 Judge Rivkah Friedman-Feldman: The Israeli judge at the helm of the Netanyahu trial. (photo credit: ISRAEL JUDICIAL AUTHORITY)
Judge Rivkah Friedman-Feldman: The Israeli judge at the helm of the Netanyahu trial.
(photo credit: ISRAEL JUDICIAL AUTHORITY)

Former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu was not happy when he drew Jerusalem District Court Judge Rivka Friedman-Feldman as the presiding judge for his public corruption trial. She is on the short list of judges who have convicted a prime minister (Ehud Olmert) and sentenced him to jail time.

And at the time, Friedman-Feldman left no doubts about her approach to public officials accused of crimes. Though she wrote that she agreed with convicting Olmert, she went a step further, declaring that had she been on the original panel (she was part of his retrial of the Talansky Affair) that acquitted him, she would have convicted Olmert even then.

When sentencing Olmert to jail time, although she and the panel expressed appreciation for Olmert’s contributions to the country, they also hammered home the prosecution’s talking points that he needed to go to jail to restore public faith in the system.

Judge Rivkah Friedman-Feldman is not what Netanyahu's defense team has wanted

Almost since the start of the Netanyahu trial, Friedman-Feldman has not been what his defense team wanted.

Even early on in the trial when they wanted to draw out questioning of former Walla CEO Ilan Yeshua or to make more points objecting to the prosecution’s questions, she lost patience.

 Benjamin Netanyahu, wearing a face mask, leaves the courtroom during a hearing in the Jerusalem District Court last year. (credit: Abir Sultan/Pool via REUTERS) Benjamin Netanyahu, wearing a face mask, leaves the courtroom during a hearing in the Jerusalem District Court last year. (credit: Abir Sultan/Pool via REUTERS)

At one point, when a defense lawyer said he was worried the judges might miss a point in Yeshua’s police testimony that the prosecution had skipped over, Friedman-Feldman quickly deadpanned, “We all know how to read.”

Another key moment where she moved things in the prosecution’s direction was when the police Pegasus cellphone spying scandal broke.

Even as most of the country and the political class were proclaiming the trial over, she brushed off all the dramatic arguments made by the defense and limited their objections to narrow technical issues before the court.

She even ordered them to continue with the witness who was testifying for several hours as if nothing had happened, until a specific issue relating to the Pegasus scandal came up directly.

That fairly serious issue delayed things for only a short time, and within a few weeks the trial was back on track.

That is not to say Friedman-Feldman is biased.

She has disappointed the prosecution on many issues, such as ruling against it on some critical disputes relating to former Netanyahu top aide Shlomo Filber’s testimony.

But if the defense might have hoped to use drama and the country’s political winds to drive the trial off course, she has stubbornly kept it moving forward, however slowly.

If Netanyahu is ever convicted and must decide whether to express regret, he should recall that Friedman-Feldman and the panel said they were stricter with Olmert because he never “accepted responsibility for his actions.”

Friedman-Feldman was also part of a panel of judges in 2001 that convicted former defense minister Yitzhak Mordechai of sexual harassment and assault. When a majority of the judges decided to give him only a suspended sentence, she voted with the minority to give him actual jail time.

Curiously, a high-profile case where Friedman-Feldman voted on the lenient side of a split in a three-judge panel was the case against the Jewish murderers of 16-year-old east Jerusalem Shuafat resident Mohammed Abu Khdeir.

In 2016, Friedman-Feldman and another judge voted in the majority for a 21-year prison sentence for two minors who actively aided the primary killer of Abu Khdeir but did not do the actual killing. The dissenting judge voted for a life sentence for the two minors.

Netanyahu will need to hope that some piece of his defense arouses the sympathy she might have for a run-of-the-mill defendant, since in her eyes, being prime minister may not be an advantage.