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Head judge in Netanyahu trial gets COVID-19, three weeks before key hearing

Judiciary says Jerusalem District Court’s Rivka Friedman-Feldman, 62, is feeling well, will be quarantined until January 1

Jerusalem District Court Judge Rivka Friedman-Feldman. (Israeli Judicial Authority)
Jerusalem District Court Judge Rivka Friedman-Feldman. (Israeli Judicial Authority)

The head of the panel of judges overseeing the corruption trial against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has tested positive for COVID-19, three weeks ahead of a key plea hearing that will be attended by the defendants and kick off the evidence phase of the proceedings.

The Israeli Judicial Authority said in a statement that Justice Rivka Friedman-Feldman of the Jerusalem District Court had caught the coronavirus, was feeling well and was scheduled to stay in quarantine until January 1.

It said an epidemiological investigation hasn’t been completed and could end up putting other officials into quarantine.

It wasn’t immediately clear whether the 62-year-old judge’s infection would affect the trial’s timetable. In most cases, patients overcome the virus within 2-3 weeks, but when more severe symptoms develop, an illness can last for longer.

Friedman-Feldman has a history of prosecuting politicians and in 2015 was part of a panel that, overturning previous rulings, convicted former prime minister Ehud Olmert on graft charges. In 2001, Friedman-Feldman was also one of three judges who found former defense minister Yitzhak Mordechai guilty of sexually assaulting and harassing two women.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the start of his trial on corruption charges, May 24, 2020. Visible behind him are two of the three judges in the case, Rivka Friedman-Feldman and Oded Shaham (Screen capture/Government Press office)

A lawmaker from Netanyahu’s Likud party, Shlomo Karhi, in August wrote to Supreme Court Chief Justice Esther Hayut and made a request for Friedman-Feldman to step aside, since her son had worked at the law firm that advised Ilan Yeshua, former CEO of the Walla news site and a key witness in Case 4000, the most serious case against Netanyahu. Friedman-Feldman’s son left the law firm at the end of 2018. Hayut has not announced a decision on that request, but is expected to reject it.

Earlier this month, Friedman-Feldman’s panel of judges rejected a demand by Netanyahu’s attorneys to cancel the criminal charges against him due to issues with the filing process, but ordered prosecutors to amend the indictment in one of the three cases the premier was charged in. The judges said “quite a few details are missing” from the indictment in Case 4000, which they said are “material and relevant to the defendants’ defense.”

The case involves suspicions that Netanyahu granted regulatory favors benefitting Shaul Elovitch, the controlling shareholder of Bezeq telecoms, in exchange for positive coverage of the prime minister and his family from the Bezeq-owned Walla news site. In their ruling, the judges instructed prosecutors to significantly amend the indictment to clearly distinguish Netanyahu from his family members, as well as Elovitch from his wife, Iris.

Judges Moshe Bar-Am, Rebecca Friedman-Feldman and Oded Shaham, L-R. (Justice Ministry)

In Case 4000, Netanyahu faces charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust. Shaul and Iris Elovitch are charged with bribery in the case.

Netanyahu also faces charges of fraud and breach of trust in Case 1000 and Case 2000. The former involves suspicions Netanyahu illicitly accepted some $200,000 in gifts such as cigars and champagne from two billionaires — Hollywood-based Israeli movie mogul Arnon Milchan and Australian magnate James Packer.

In Case 2000, Netanyahu is accused of attempting to reach a quid pro quo with Yedioth Ahronoth publisher Arnon Mozes for positive media coverage in exchange for legislation weakening the rival newspaper Israel Hayom. Mozes was charged with bribery in the case.

Netanyahu’s trial opened in May. Though the prime minister attended the first hearing, he was granted an exemption from appearing at later, largely procedural stages of the trial.

Netanyahu, who is the first Israeli premier to be indicted while in office, denies any wrongdoing and has railed against the courts, prosecution, and media for what he terms a “witch hunt.”

In November, the court delayed the start of the evidentiary stage from January to February. The court said that witness testimony would be pushed off by a month and that precise dates would be determined later.

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