How will Netanyahu's trial look if the judges let him drag it out?

For those who thought that the next court date of July 19 is when witnesses will be called, it is not even close.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu  (photo credit: REUTERS)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Why did the three Jerusalem District Court judges, led by Rivka Friedman-Feldman, seem to buy Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s game plan of dragging out his trial extensively?
There are probably multiple interpretations, but the two most obvious ones are that either they were overwhelmed by his multipronged campaign or that they thought playing along with him now was politically expedient.
The main signs that the judges are playing Netanyahu’s game with the pace of the trial, and not the prosecution’s, were how little they pressed Netanyahu’s lawyers and the two-month delay in even discussing setting a date to start calling witnesses.
For those who thought the next court date of July 19 is when witnesses will be called, it is not even close.
July 19 will be when Netanyahu’s lawyers unveil a wide range of pretrial motions to get him acquitted without even calling witnesses.
The prosecution had essentially suggested that the trial itself could start by August. And without taking sides about whether Netanyahu is innocent or guilty, the prosecution’s argument here is easier to make.
The charges against Netanyahu have been well known for years. Huge amounts of documents were given to the defense as early as February 2019, and another massive load was given to them in the summer of 2019 before the pre-indictment hearings.
The October pre-indictment hearings were basically a multi-week rehearsal for the trial.
So even giving the sides a few months to resolve some remaining document disputes and make pretrial motions for unlikely acquittals without calling witnesses, a few months would seem to be enough.
By pushing off even discussing the date when the trial will really open with witnesses for a full two months, the judges made it clear that they are yielding to Netanyahu’s wish to push off witnesses and the verdict date as long as possible.
Netanyahu wants to push off the date for calling witnesses and the verdict date to maximize the amount of time he is prime minister or alternate prime minister without interference.
And Friedman-Feldman’s pushing off even setting a date for witnesses both has huge implications for the prime minister rotation switch in November 2021 and sets up another colossal battle between the executive and judicial branches.
If the trial had started this summer and the judges held hearings three or four times a week, they could have reached an acquittal or conviction before the November 2021 prime minister switch-off date.
That would have meant that the High Court of Justice would be mostly off the hook from having to readdress the question of whether Netanyahu could stay in office.
If acquitted, he would be totally clean, and if convicted, he might be forced out by his own political allies. If the court had to force him out, it would not be viewed to be as controversial a decision as forcing out an indicted prime minister awaiting his trial.
Now the third scenario is the most likely: where in November 2021 he will become alternate prime minister with the trial still pending for some time.
This means that petitions will be filed to the High Court asking the justices to disqualify him based on the idea that only a full prime minister is exempt from resigning upon indictment, not an alternate prime minister.
Forcing the High Court to decide this issue could bring back the same conflagration between the disparate branches of government and could potentially undermine the rotation handover.
The district court does not seem ready to do the High Court any favors to avoid this.
Of course, there is another interpretation.
Seeing the multifront campaign that Netanyahu waged over the last week and Sunday and reading between the lines, the judges may have decided that the best thing is to give in to his request at this stage to let the whole trial fall off the front pages.
Sure, at some point the crowds may come back when Netanyahu testifies in court. But that may not be for a long time, and they may hope that by then that the fervor over the issue may have died down.
In the meantime, the judges gave him an exemption from having to come to court, and they may be hoping this will let them move forward more quietly and in peace.
The judges also could still surprise and try to start the trial only two months or so after the July 19 hearing date.
But absent that, the trial seems to be settling in as a long, drawn-out marathon with no clear end in sight and which could easily roll into 2022.