Lead prosecutor gets round-the-clock security amid threats

Likud MK demands recusal of judge in PM’s trial for alleged conflict of interest

According to report, move seen as latest attempt to delay proceedings and discredit those involved in the prosecution and judgment of Netanyahu

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

A lawmaker from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party has demanded the recusal of the judge presiding over three graft cases against the premier, in a move that would delay the start of the evidentiary stage of the trial, according to a television report on Wednesday.

MK Shlomo Karhi, an ally of the prime minister, wrote to the Supreme Court’s Chief Justice Esther Hayut and made the request for Jerusalem District Court judge Rivka Friedman-Feldman to step aside, in a move that was apparently coordinated with Netanyahu, reported Channel 12.

The appeal centers around the fact that Friedman-Feldman’s son worked at the law firm that advised Ilan Yeshua, former CEO of Walla, and a key witness in Case 4000. Friedman-Feldman’s son left the law firm at the end of 2018.

In Case 4000, the premier is accused of approving regulatory moves benefiting the controlling shareholder of the Bezeq telecommunications company in exchange for positive news coverage from the company’s Walla news site. Netanyahu, who denies wrongdoing, faces charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust in the case.

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)

The secondary argument made by Karhi is that Hayut recently formulated the rules on recusal to specifically ensure that Friedman-Feldman would not need to step aside. He said that from the moment the judge’s son left the law firm, the two were theoretically able to discuss the case, while other cases would require a 5-year cooling-off period.

According to the report, Hayut is expected to reject the request. It said the letter is an attempt by Netanyahu and his team to delegitimize  the judge and delay the next stage of his trial — if successful, it could take at least a year to replace the judge presiding over such a high-profile case. The evidentiary stage of the trial is set to begin in January.

Friedman-Feldman has a history of prosecuting politicians and in 2015 was part of a panel that overturned previous rulings and 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.

Netanyahu, his team and his allies, have been accused of deploying a number of tactics to delay or stall the trial, including closing the courts at the start of the pandemic and a high turnover on his legal team as well as long-running wranglings over who is allowed to pay for the premier’s defense team.

Likud MK Shlomo Karhi at a Knesset committee meeting on January 13, 2020. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Last month at the second hearing in the trial one of his lawyers asked for a delay in the proceedings until after the coronavirus outbreak has ended due to awkwardness of cross-examinations when all those involved are required to wear face masks.

Netanyahu’s trial on charges of accepting bribes, fraud and breach of trust opened in May in the Jerusalem District Court. He denies any wrongdoing and has railed against the courts, police, prosecution and media for what he terms a “witch hunt.”

Netanyahu last month launched a scathing, unprecedented attack against Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit, whom he appointed and who served previously as the PM’s cabinet secretary, accusing him of being part of a deep-state conspiracy aiming to oust Netanyahu for political reasons.

Meanwhile, the Rishon Lezion District Court on Wednesday ordered a Likud activist to take down a video posted to social media which falsely claimed the son of the lead prosecutor in the corruption cases against Netanyahu had assaulted a police officer.

Liat Ben-Ari arrives at District Court in Jerusalem, May 24, 2020 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The judge said there would be a restraining order issued against Orly Lev if she did not remove the clip. Lev claimed that she had acted in good faith and had been convinced that the individual in the video was the son of Deputy State Attorney for Financial Enforcement, Liat Ben-Ari.

The prime minister’s defenders have frequently harshly criticized Ben-Ari and other members of the law enforcement community whom they accuse, without evidence, of attempting to unseat Netanyahu for political reasons.

Security has been significantly increased around Ben-Ari after threats against her escalated, a report said earlier this month, days after a man was indicted on charges of threatening Ben-Ari’s underage son, and after several weeks of protests outside her home.

Channel 13 reported that police had received a tip that the danger had become more serious, leading to the decision to assign her security guards around the clock. Ben-Ari will also have unspecified technologies installed at her home, the report said.

Public Security Minister Amir Ohana, a close ally of the prime minister, has called on Ben-Ari to resign over the allegations that she and her husband split a home into two separate apartments without a permit. They are reportedly to be questioned by municipal inspectors over the allegations.

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