The fate of the nation hangs in the balance.
No matter who ends up forming a coalition after Monday’s election, there is one certainty - on March 17, in just two weeks, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s trial will begin, making him the first sitting prime minister to sit for a criminal trial.
Forget that the first Netanyahu probes started in 2016 and took forever to get to this point.
A real trial will move forward and, with Netanyahu’s immunity card played and frayed in January, there is nothing anyone can do to stop this already moving ship from sailing forward.
What will the March 17 hearing look like?
After noting what a major moment it is and that its final consequences cannot be stopped – the truth is March 17 itself will not look like much.
The opening day of such complex trials is usually taken up mostly by lawyers fighting over whether all of the relevant documents have been shared with the defense, setting a witness schedule and fixing a factual framework for the trial itself.
The real heart of the trial, with witnesses, objections and cross-examination, will likely start in mid-or-late 2020.
One reason there is such uncertainty about when this will start is because Netanyahu is a sitting prime minister and may use emergencies to delay hearings.
To date, the court has moved very slowly with the case, waiting from January 28, when the indictment was filed, until March 17, to hold even the first technical hearing.
In doing so, the courts have signaled that they will allow fear of interfering with election politics to delay the schedule. The High Court of Justice gave this exact rationale in explaining why it would not rule on a petition to disqualify Netanyahu preelection.
So the courts will probably give Netanyahu more time to prepare for trial based on the idea that after March 2 he will be trying to form a government.
Further, Netanyahu has also achieved delays in the past by making changes to his legal team and other maneuverings, something he could try again.
Once the trial does start, it could present drama like no other. Ambassador to the US Ron Dermer and former Mossad director Tamir Pardo may testify.
Blue and White No. 2 Yair Lapid, Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan and a comprehensive list of top Netanyahu advisers, including three who turned state’s witness, will all likely testify.
Netanyahu himself will be compelled to answer hard questions about his actions on a playing field where the rules of criminal procedure govern – not the same as his Facebook videos or even media interviews, when he can obfuscate.
Could this stage of the trial impact his political standing if he is still prime minister or in politics? It is hard to say. It will certainly bring unflattering images and will deflect him time-wise and message-wise from serious national security or economic issues. However, Netanyahu has a die-hard slice of the country that supports him as did former prime minister Ehud Olmert – up until conviction.
In terms of a verdict, we are probably looking at between mid-2021 and mid-2023.
The uncertainty in time depends on whether Netanyahu tries to resolve the trial as fast as possible hoping to lift the cloud from his head or whether (the more likely option) he tries to draw it out as long as possible to delay his potential conviction to help stay in office or maintain his political power.
Case 4000 in particular has a massive amount of evidence that the defense could spend extensive time critiquing.
If convicted, this would overwhelmingly be the political end of Netanyahu. Even Olmert’s most die-hard supporters mostly deserted him once he was convicted. A conviction in court is still a redline for law-abiding citizens.
If Netanyahu is convicted, his sentence could come down anytime between the start of 2022 and late 2024 – probably around six to 15 months from the verdict.
Olmert was convicted in March 2014 and sentenced in May 2015.
Typical cases actually only have weeks or months pass for sentencing, but just as Olmert dragged out the process, Netanyahu likely would pull out all of the stops to delay jail.
If convicted, Netanyahu would probably enter jail between mid-2022 and mid-2025 – three to nine months from the sentencing.
Olmert was sentenced in May 2015, but his appeal to the Supreme Court delayed prison until February 2016. Netanyahu would try the same tactics to try to obtain an acquittal, to reduce and delay his sentence.
So the election is crucial. But there are legal forces operating now that will grab the country’s attention in 2020 and that control Netanyahu’s ultimate fate, regardless of Monday’s results.