Members of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party responded to reports over the weekend that Attorney General Gali Baharav-Miara was close to ordering the premier to take a leave of absence, with one lawmaker calling it “a gun to the head.”
Several reports Friday evening said Baharav-Miara was mulling the move on the grounds that the government’s plans to overhaul the judiciary amount to a breach of conflict of interest rules that bar Netanyahu from involvement in matters that might impact his ongoing criminal trial for corruption.
The Kan public broadcaster reported that Baharav-Miara and her aides were closely studying a 2021 decision by Supreme Court Justice Hanan Melcer, who ruled that the attorney general alone has the authority to make such a call. Channel 12 news went further, reporting that Baharav-Miara was close to making the unprecedented decision. Neither network cited a source.
“A very severe remark,” Likud MK Danny Danon said when asked about the report during an interview with Kan Saturday evening. He noted that the attorney general’s office had not denied the report and said he hoped such a denial would be issued quickly.
Otherwise, he claimed, “this is a gun to the head, throwing a threat into the air.”
He said that if Baharav-Miara’s associates had indeed leaked the information to the media, “this is significant, in my eyes it is an indecent and unacceptable threat that should be off the table.”
Fellow Likud MK Boaz Bismuth attacked Baharav-Miara, suggesting on Twitter that “she step down herself because of conflict of interest.” He noted that the attorney general was appointed under former prime minister Naftali Bennett by former justice minister Gideon Sa’ar — both bitter Netanyahu rivals — and claimed she was now “doing anything needed to please them.”
In contrast, an unnamed senior Likud official was quoted Sunday morning by the Maariv daily dismissing the report as an “idle threat.”
“These are empty words, there is no point in commenting on irresponsible remarks aimed at inflaming the situation instead of calming it,” the official said, adding that the reports about the option were aimed at deterring Netanyahu from firing Baharav-Miara.
“They don’t understand that there isn’t really an intention to fire her,” the official said. “But if they continue with their scare campaign, this may cause that outcome.”
The official was also quoted as saying Netanyahu’s associates were advising him to avoid any public act or remark on matters related to the planned overhaul of the justice system to avoid giving the attorney general any pretext to claim he was breaching his conflict of interest obligations.
The new developments come days after Baharav-Miara notified Netanyahu that he remains bound by conflict of interest rules, first drawn up in late 2020 by former attorney-general Avichai Mandelblit, barring him from making senior law enforcement and judicial appointments, or getting involved in legislative matters that may impact his ongoing trial.
Baharav-Miara’s notice was given as a response to a petition demanding she draw up an updated conflict of interest agreement for Netanyahu. The attorney general rejected the petition, calling it “irrelevant” since she ruled that the previous agreement drawn up by Mandelblit was still in effect.
Netanyahu is on trial in three corruption cases on charges of fraud and breach of trust, as well as bribery in one of them. He denies wrongdoing and claims the charges were fabricated in an attempted political coup led by the police, the state prosecution, the media and left-wing rivals.
Netanyahu’s new government is in the midst of pushing contentious legislation that will weaken Israel’s judiciary. The overhaul proposed by Justice Minister Yariv Levin would drastically limit the High Court of Justice’s power of judicial review of legislation; allow the Knesset to re-legislate laws if the court strikes them down; give the government control over judicial appointments; turn ministry legal advisers’ into political appointees, and make their counsel non-binding.
Levin on Monday argued that Netanyahu’s indictment had helped boost the public’s awareness of the need to reduce the powers of the judiciary, for the first time linking his controversial package of laws aimed at reining in the courts to the premier’s legal travails — a linkage that Baharav-Miara has clarified cannot be made if Netanyahu wants to remain in his position.
While Levin has been the face of the judicial proposals for now, Netanyahu has weighed in publicly to support them and discussed them during a Likud faction meeting last week.