How is Netanyahu going to be PM once his trial begins? - analysis

Not all is bad in Netanyahu’s world.

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)
Attorney-General Avichai Mandelblit, upon indicting Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, famously praised him as “a man of many talents” who can perform many roles simultaneously.
But will that include shouldering a third coronavirus wave – and some say maybe the worst – this coming winter just as the court starts calling witnesses for his bribery trial in January 2021?
The Jerusalem District Court did not just set the date for the heart of the trial to open up; it also declared there would be three hearings every week.
While no one really knows how long the trial will run, estimates from senior legal officials say it will most likely run until at least mid-2022 and could easily run longer.
How will Netanyahu fight the many-headed monster known as coronavirus and deal with Israel’s myriad other challenges while having to be distracted three times a week by his trial?
True, defendants can get exemptions from having to attend every hearing; Netanyahu has only attended one of his two trial hearings to date.
But Netanyahu will probably spend a minimum of four months (not necessarily consecutively) in court during the extended trial.
He will probably testify in his defense for at least a week and possibly multiple weeks.
Next, he will likely be cross-examined for even longer.
Netanyahu will probably want to be physically present to try to stare down his former top aides and now state’s witnesses who have turned on him: Shlomo Filber and Nir Hefetz.
Filber and Hefetz could each testify for several weeks or more.
The prime minister may also want to be present for the testimony of Ari Harow, a former aide turned state’s witness, who has not turned on him but is providing information to prosecutors that could be damaging.
There are a range of other witnesses for whom he may want to be present, including his wife, Sara, senior Likud official Gilad Erdan, as well as for allies and former allies who could damage him, including Arnon Milchin, Shaul Elovitch and Sheldon Adelson.
The list of influential witnesses goes on and on, such that four months might be a low estimate.
However, even if Netanyahu tries to avoid large portions of the trial, how focused will he be at a cabinet meeting when he tries to present a serious coronavirus proposal, only to notice that all of his ministers are following the latest tweet about a state’s witness condemning him for corruption?
How many news conferences with foreign leaders will be interrupted by breaking sensational details in the trial regarding damaging secret texts or recorded conversations?
From this perspective, Netanyahu must be disappointed that witnesses will start testifying in around six months as opposed to the nine months or longer he had hoped for.
He is probably also upset by having to deal with three hearings a week as opposed to two.
Not all is bad in Netanyahu’s world.
If not for the fights over his immunity, election delays, coronavirus delays and the court being patient in May, the November 21, 2019, indictment against him could have led to witnesses being called already this month.
His success in delaying a late-2019 indictment until early 2021 not only gave him breathing room until now, it also guarantees he will not be convicted in November 2021, when he is due to give the premiership to  Alternate Prime Minister Benny Gantz and become alternate prime minister himself.
Had the case moved faster – the current date and pace are a compromise as prosecutors would have liked to have moved even more speedily – a verdict might have come out before November 2021.
This means the High Court of Justice is less likely to nix him becoming alternate prime minister, though it still could veto that move on the mere basis of his indictment.
In the meantime, whether he can keep up with the prime minister’s duties and how the trial will drag on his political support will be on full display starting in half a year.