Judge and prosecutor: These are the women who who could lock Netanyahu up

#4 - Justice seekers: Rivkah Friedman Feldman and Liat Ben Ari

Rivkah Friedman Feldman
Jerusalem District Court Judge Rivkah Friedman-Feldman is the lead judge and by far the most prominent on the three-judge panel that will determine Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s fate.
Friedman-Feldman served on the panel that convicted former prime minister Ehud Olmert in the Talansky Affair retrial. Though she wrote that she agreed with convicting Olmert, she went a step further than the majority, declaring that had she been on the original panel that acquitted him, she would have convicted Olmert even in the first trial. During the sentencing stage with Olmert, despite the fact that she and the panel expressed appreciation for Olmert’s contributions to the country, they also echoed the prosecution’s points that he must go to jail to restore public faith in the system.
If Netanyahu loses his trial 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.”
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So far, Friedman-Feldman has been a mixed bag for Netanyahu, granting a corona-related postponement from the March hearing and showing patience at the May hearing, but denying further delays at the July hearing. If her patience helped Netanyahu buy four months in which little happened, by the July hearing, she had set January for calling witnesses, rejecting Netanyahu’s request to push witnesses off until spring or winter 2021.
Also, when Netanyahu’s lawyer, Yossi Segev, told the court in July that he was only hired for one hearing, she responded impatiently, “Then why am I here?”
Friedman-Feldman then added that it was impossible to hold a trial if Netanyahu’s lawyers continue to complain about whether they are being paid as opposed to committing to the full trial.
In addition, Friedman-Feldman was part of a panel of judges in 2001 that convicted former defense minister Yitzhak Mordechai of sexual harassment and assault. However, when a majority of the judges decided to impose only a suspended sentence, she voted with the minority to give him actual jail time.
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 murderers of 16-year-old east Jerusalem Shuafat resident Muhammad 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. A dissenting judge had voted for a life sentence for the two minors.
Friedman-Feldman and the other two judges were all promoted from the magistrate’s court to the district court in 2012. Jerusalem District Court President Aharon Farkash selected them over himself and his three most senior deputies because of a combination of already being committed to other high-profile cases, impending retirement and, in one case, a lack of criminal law experience.
THE BIGGEST names behind the decision to indict Netanyahu may be Attorney-General Avichai Mandelblit and former state attorney Shai Nitzan, but the trial’s actual lead prosecutor is Deputy State Attorney Liat Ben Ari.
Ben Ari argued on behalf of the prosecution at the opening of Netanyahu’s trial both on May 24 and July 19 and succeeded in convincing the court to start the trial in January instead of spring or even winter 2021.
Liat Ben Ari (Olivier Fitoussi/ Flash90)Liat Ben Ari (Olivier Fitoussi/ Flash90)
Her delivery style evinces an obvious sense of confidence and seniority. Making history for her is just matter-of-fact what she does. She earned this aura as the lead prosecutor of former prime minister Ehud Olmert during the Holyland trial in the Tel Aviv District Court, and that record was part of why Mandelblit transferred her leadership of the team mid-probe. By the same token, she is nowhere near as aggressive and confrontational as former prosecutor Uri Korb, who prosecuted Olmert in the separate Jerusalem corruption trial.
In May 2017, Ben Ari made headlines at an Israel Bar Association event when she gave the first hint that Netanyahu could be indicted in Case 1000, the Illegal Gifts Affair. She said this was true even if there was no “quid pro quo,” meaning he did not give anything back directly in return. “There is no such thing as gifts that are too small” to criminally investigate, she said. “When we are referring to presents worth hundreds of thousands of shekels, it is hard for me to accept that we are talking solely about presents between friends. I know that about myself and my friends. None of us receive presents of that value,” said Ben-Ari in response to questions from the panel moderators.
Her statement raised eyebrows because it came around eight months before the police recommended indicting Netanyahu. Not only that, but it was also long before the prime minister was even a suspect in Case 4000, the Bezeq-Walla Affair – the case which tipped Mandelblit over into being ready to confront Netanyahu.
Despite Justice Ministry spokespeople’s attempts to qualify Ben Ari’s statement, this made it clear that Ben Ari was taking a harsher stance on Netanyahu and bribery than Mandelblit. Ben Ari correctly predicted in a fall 2017 interview with the Israel Bar Association that the Case 1000 and 2000 police probes would be mostly wrapped up by late 2017/early 2018.
Other times Ben Ari has made headlines were when she took an ill-advised family vacation in the middle of the Netanyahu pre-indictment hearings before Mandelblit in October 2018. She was criticized by Netanyahu’s lawyers and supporters, who said this showed she was not taking their arguments seriously. After it was publicized in late 2018 that Ben Ari was recommending a bribery charge, supporters of Netanyahu started to publicly attack her reputation and promote a range of questionable stories to drag her down.
But all signs are that the no-nonsense prosecutor will trudge along, come what may.