Can Netanyahu delay his trial with coronavirus, new lawyers?

If there was no Blue and White Party in the government, that might be enough for a Likud justice minister to shut down most of the courts before Sunday.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu looks on as he delivers a statement during his visit at the Health Ministry national hotline, in Kiryat Malachi, Israel March 1, 2020 (photo credit: AMIR COHEN/REUTERS)
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu looks on as he delivers a statement during his visit at the Health Ministry national hotline, in Kiryat Malachi, Israel March 1, 2020
(photo credit: AMIR COHEN/REUTERS)
As of late Thursday, it looked like Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s second hearing in his bribery trial would take place on Sunday as scheduled.
Yes, the government is talking about new coronavirus restrictions for Friday and a potential national lockdown any day.
If there was no Blue and White Party in the government, that might be enough for a Likud justice minister to shut down most of the courts before Sunday, the same way that then-justice minister and Netanyahu-loyalist Amir Ohana did in mid-March.
Ohana’s emergency shutdown order allowed the High Court of Justice to remain open, but pushed off Netanyahu’s first hearing from March 17 until May 24.
By May 24, Justice Minister Avi Nissenkorn had replaced Ohana, and made it clear he would not shut down the courts to get delays for Netanyahu.
The Jerusalem Post checked this with a Blue and White spokeswoman leading into the expected lockdown, and she reaffirmed that the courts would remain open even if there was a lockdown.
On top of the above, High Court President Esther Hayut sent a letter to the whole judicial branch on Thursday urging them to keep their heads held high.
Though she did not mention Netanyahu’s hearing, the clear upshot of the letter was that the courts will not shut down this time and will struggle on, despite having around 225 judges and staff in quarantine and around 10 infected judges and staff.
But no one should hold their breath until the hearing actually happens.
When Ohana closed the courts in mid-March, it was only days after the Jerusalem District Court refused Netanyahu’s lawyers request for a postponement due to taking new lawyers on to the team – meaning the judges were taken by surprise.
This brings us to another form of Netanyahu potential delay – trying to use changes on his legal team to buy time.
Sunday’s hearing itself is not terribly important. No witnesses will be called and Netanyahu will not even have to attend.
But the court will decide the trial schedule on Sunday. And whether it starts in September or as late as spring 2021 will have huge implications for whether Netanyahu will need to hand over the premiership to Alternate Prime Minister Benny Gantz in November 2021, as well as a range of other issues.
Netanyahu’s former new lawyer, Micha Fettman, asked in May to push off calling witnesses until spring 2021, since he was new to the case and needed time to study the voluminous files.
Fettman quit just last week and was replaced by lawyer Yossi Segev. This means that when Segev comes before the court on Sunday, he will have had just over one week to get up to date.
If Fettman in May asked for spring 2021, Segev may ask for a longer delay to get caught up.
Yet, once again Netanyahu may find himself in a worse position now than he was in March or in May.
If you switch a lawyer once, judges tend to be tolerant and want to show goodwill by giving that lawyer time to be fully ready for the trial.
However, there is nothing judges loathe more than a party who they think is serially switching lawyers to play games.
If the judges reach this conclusion about Netanyahu, they may even grant the prosecution’s wish to start the trial sooner so as to send a message to the prime minister that they are not to be trifled with.
Alternatively, they may give Segev whatever amount of time to prepare that they would have given Fettman, but he is unlikely to get an extension now that he is the second new face in two months.
Netanyahu has done a marvelous tactical job delaying the real moment of truth since the police first recommended his indictment in February 2018.
But the courts are not the political arena and at some point, there are no more tricks to pull out of a hat to postpone confronting pending charges.


Tags Trial