Netanyahu win won't significantly delay trial, if it will delay it at all

Analysis: There is a strong chance that the court will deny any postponement, and if it grant one, it will not be significant.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
On the heels of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s impressive electoral victory on Monday, reports resurfaced about whether his lawyers would be able to pull off a further delay in his trial, set to start March 17.
While it is not impossible that he may get a short delay, there is a strong chance that the court will deny any postponement – and if they do grant one, it will not be significant.
Netanyahu could request a postponement, claiming that the prosecution has not turned over all evidentiary materials. Or he could argue that the ongoing process of the State Comptroller Committee, which is hearing his request that it permit tycoon Spencer Partridge to pay an estimated NIS 10 million in legal fees relating to the trial, has not been completed.
Netanyahu will probably also point out that he is deeply involved in trying to form a coalition government and needs to not be distracted.
Underlying all of this will be the message to the court that it had better treat Netanyahu differently and carefully, because he just won the support of a clear majority (or at least plurality) of the public, despite their knowledge of the three corruption cases he faces.
The reasons that the court will not give him much of a delay fall into substantive and technical categories.
Substantively, the court and Attorney-General Avichai Mandelblit have attempted to walk a middle path with Netanyahu and electoral considerations.
At every crossroads where the legal establishment could have actively pushed the prime minister out of office, it did not. At the same time, at every point where it could have given Netanyahu a complete pass, it also did not.
The middle-road ideology appears to be that Netanyahu will get temporary delays to avoid being seen by the public as having his trial rushed or being blatantly interfered with to hurt his electoral chances – but not giving him substantial delays, which might appear to the public as cowering or shirking legal responsibility to bring him to trial.
THE HIGH COURT could have rejected a petition to force his resignation out of hand, or could have heard it and ruled that the court had no jurisdiction to force out a prime minister pre-conviction.
On the opposite extreme, the High Court could have ordered Netanyahu to resign before the election.
Instead, it let Netanyahu run, but also heard the petition, essentially saying it potentially might have the power to order a prime minister to quit, but thought it would be poor judgment to do so given the situation in the country and that the prime minister had not yet been convicted.
The Jerusalem District Court could have made sure that Netanyahu’s trial started preelection. He was due to be indicted November 21 – and the delay until January 28 by an immunity request, which was eventually withdrawn, could easily have justified a trial starting by mid-February.
Or the District Court could have not set a trial date at all and wait for the election results, which would have signaled a readiness to postpone the trial indefinitely if Netanyahu won.
Instead, the Jerusalem District Court chose the middle path of announcing a date while elections were still running, but making the date itself two weeks after elections.
This gives Netanyahu time to catch his breath, and theoretically enough time to form a government if he had won a 61-seat right-wing bloc majority outright (which it appears he just missed). But it also signaled that the court would proceed with the trial even if the standard multiple-month coalition negotiations were underway.
IN TERMS of Netanyahu’s technical objections, the court might at most give a small delay, as Mandelblit has occasionally done in the past.
The fact that the prosecution and defense have not agreed about how much evidence has been turned over will not delay the March 17 date much, because that is exactly what the first hearing is scheduled to resolve. Witnesses will not be called until the middle or end of this year.
The fact that the comptroller committee is debating Netanyahu’s legal-financial equation will not give him more than a small postponement, if any at all, because they can reach their decision fairly quickly and because the judges know that an earlier comptroller committee rejected his request three times for tycoon-financing for his trial.
This all means that there is nothing new about the issue – and if anything, the court may look condescendingly on a comptroller committee’s reversal of its earlier three decisions, made possible when new State Comptroller Matanyahu Englman replaced the old committee with new members reportedly having links to Likud.
Furthermore, the court will likely take its signal from Mandelblit, whose position has been that Netanyahu’s ability to get outside financing is an external issue that does not impact the calendar of legal decisions regarding his case. In other words, he may end up getting outside financing, but it is not a guaranteed right that can delay his case.
Most importantly, there have been rumors that a new Netanyahu coalition may pass a retroactive immunity law to scrap the criminal case altogether.
This has not gone over well with the court, and moving forward with the case without exceptional delays will be the court’s clear message that it will not be intimidated by such threats.