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If he had been given the option, Benjamin Netanyahu would probably not have chosen Justice Rivka Friedman-Feldman to preside over his criminal trial for three cases of bribery, fraud and breach of trust.
Friedman-Feldman, 62, has a reputation for being firm and fair—and has experience in sending high-profile politicians accused of criminal offenses to jail.
In February, Friedman-Feldman was appointed head of the three-justice panel that will preside over Netanyahu’s case. (The other two are justices Oded Shacham and Moshe Bar-Am.) Netanyahu is being tried in District Court, the middle level courts in the Israeli judiciary, because they have jurisdiction over cases in which the accused could be sentenced to more than seven years of imprisonment. If convicted, Netanyahu could face up to ten years in jail on the bribery charge and up to three years in jail for the fraud and the breach of trust charges. Unlike the American system, Israeli courts do not appoint juries, and all criminal and civil trials are conducted before judges, who both oversee the trial and determine the verdict.
In 2014, Friedman-Feldman was one of the judges that sent former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to jail for six years (later reduced to 18 months) after convicting him of bribery and obstruction of justice when he was the mayor of Jerusalem between 1993 and 2003.
In 2001, she was in the minority in ruling on a case against Yitzhak Mordechai, former transportation minister, defense minister and major general in the Israel Defense Forces, who was convicted of indecent assault. While all three judges convicted him, only Friedman-Feldman thought that he should be sentenced to actual prison time. In response to the argument that the damage to his career and reputation was punishment enough, she wrote in her minority opinion that they should have been accorded less weight, because “the public interest supersedes consideration of his personal circumstances…That interest dictates a significant punishment.”
She attached particular importance to the senior public positions that Mordechai had held, noting that his sentence should highlight, “appropriate conduct by soldiers and commanders towards their subordinates, and how public servants should relate to the wishes of men and women regarding their physical selves.”
Friedman-Feldman was also a justice in several high-profile murder cases in Israel, including the trial of Yosef Haim Ben-David, who was convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment for the murder of Palestinian youth Muhammed Abu Khdeir in July 2014. (The murder and trial formed the basis for the recent HBO series Our Boys.)
However, while many of her decisions have been praised, a conviction in a case of graft over which she presided was overturned by the Supreme Court, which is very unusual in the Israeli justice system. This is publicly (although not legally) relevant because of the crimes of which Netanyahu is accused.
A lawyer who has argued before Friedman-Feldman spoke with Moment Magazine on condition of anonymity. “She runs a tight ship,” the lawyer said. “The court proceedings are very matter-of-fact, almost dry sometimes, and her face doesn’t seem to have any expression. Until she asks a question. Then you see how really sharp she is, how perceptive, how she listens to and considers everything that is said, by the defense and the prosecution.”
Friedman-Feldman grew up in Jerusalem in a home with a national-religious orientation and attended the prestigious and rigorous Horev school for religious girls. She performed national service (an option available to religious girls in lieu of military service) and then studied law at Hebrew University.
She passed the Israeli bar exam in 1982 and began working in the public system; at the age of 26, she was appointed to the position of the director of the civil appeals decision in the Supreme Court. At age 36, she was appointed as a judge in the Jerusalem District Court.
In a profile in the monthly magazine Liberal, journalist Rotem Danon writes that Friedman-Feldman “grew up and clerked with judges who emphasized personal example, honesty and integrity, judicial responsibility, and public contribution and she has made these views her own.”
She also has, Danon says, the personal strength to tolerate the anticipated attacks on her and on the justice system—which have already started.
Since the investigations against him began, Netanyahu has both claimed his innocence and insisted that the investigations and subsequent indictments are products of a witch-hunt by the left-wing-controlled media. Only days after Supreme Court President Esther Hayut appointed Friedman-Feldman and the other members of the panel, Netanyahu appeared on a prime-time television interview and claimed that there had been reports that described the judges as “leftists” and attempted to put the onus on the judges to refute the claim.
However, according to The Times of Israel, an Israeli English-language daily, no news sites, not even those extremely supportive of Netanyahu, are known to have claimed that any of the judges hold left-wing views and it remains unclear to which reports Netanyahu was referring.
Netanyahu’s team also demanded that Friedman-Feldman be disqualified or recuse herself because of an ostensible connection between her son and a private law firm marginally connected to the case.
Friedman-Feldman has denied these requests.
Netanyahu’s lawyers requested that he be exempted from appearing in court at all, but Friedman-Feldman insisted that he be present to hear the reading of the charges against him. Before entering the court, Netanyahu, surrounded by supportive members of his party, convened the media in a hallway and declared, “Elements in the police and State Attorney’s Office banded together with left-wing journalists…to fabricate baseless cases against me…The goal is to oust a strong right-wing prime minister and to banish the right-wing camp from leadership of the country for many years.”
In the courtroom, Friedman-Feldman did not react to the speech but did express frustration with the repeated changes in Netanyahu’s legal team. Several lawyers have quit the team after complaining about not being paid. Netanyahu has insisted that he should not have to cover his own legal costs, but Israel’s attorney general ruled in August that the prime minister could not receive money from wealthy donors because of potential conflicts of interest.
Netanyahu’s lawyer argued during that court appearance that the trial should be delayed for six months in part because he would not be able to read witnesses’ expressions if they have to wear masks (due to COVID-19) while testifying. Friedman-Feldman denied this request, too, and the trial is scheduled to resume in January 2021.
As Danon noted in his profile of Friedman-Feldman, despite her involvement in high-profile cases, “no one knows her political opinions or positions.”
Yet even the procedural issues on which Friedman-Feldman must make decisions could have an effect not only on the trial itself, but on Israel’s status as a liberal democracy. Netanyahu’s lawyers are expected to continue to request delays. Granting these requests, for whatever reasons, could allow Netanyahu and his party to push through legislation that could affect the trial and to limit the powers of the Supreme Court, which they have repeatedly promised to do.
Friedman-Feldman has determined that when the trial resumes in January, it will convene three times a week. She has yet to rule whether Netanyahu must be present in person at all, or any, of these sessions. If she determines that he must show up, his political opponents will likely appeal to the Supreme Court to have Netanyahu declared as incapacitated and incapable of conducting the affairs of state. In response, Netanyahu could also call for early elections, which he periodically threatens to do.
And so, Rivka Friedman-Feldman, a no-nonsense, highly regarded judge, now finds herself presiding over one of the most significant, and certainly the most politicized, trials in Israel’s history.
Top photo: Emil Salman and the Israel Bar Association