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AG asks High Court to intervene if Netanyahu breaks conflict of interest rules

‘It’s not a recommendation,’ says Mandelbit of arrangement designed to prevent PM abusing his authority to help with his legal woes

Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit attends an event at the Dan Hotel in Jerusalem, on February 6, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)
Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit attends an event at the Dan Hotel in Jerusalem, on February 6, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit said Tuesday that his conflict of interest arrangement for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu — which prevents the premier from appointing top law enforcement officials, among other restrictions — is legally binding whether Netanyahu agrees to it or not.

In a letter to the High Court of Justice, Mandelblit said that the legal framework for the agreement, which stems from the prime minister’s indictment in three criminal cases, is not a recommendation, or dependent on Netanyahu’s “good will.”

“The attorney general’s opinion on the prevention of conflicts of interest binds all the arms of the executive branch and reflects for them the existing law, similar to his legal opinion on other issues, and is not merely a recommendation,” Mandelblit’s office wrote.

“The applicability of the limitations derived from the attorney general’s opinion in relation to a conflict of interest does not depend on the goodwill of the incumbent… but is warranted by virtue of the attorney general’s interpretation of the law,” the letter said.

Under Mandelblit’s arrangement, Netanyahu cannot be involved in any matters that affect witnesses or other defendants in his trial, or legislation that would impact the legal proceedings against him. He cannot intervene in matters related to the status of several top police and prosecution officials, in several fields under the responsibility of the Communications Ministry, or in the Judicial Appointments Committee, which appoints judges to the Jerusalem District Court — where his trial is being conducted — and to the Supreme Court, which would hear any appeals in the case.

Mandelblit asked the court to intervene if Netanyahu refuses to adhere to the agreement.

“As long as the prime minister insists that he does not intend to act in accordance with this arrangement, it seems that there is no escape from further investigation of the petitions, including the issuance of conditional orders (summoning Netanyahu to explain his position in the High Court),” Mandelblit wrote.

Netanyahu’s lawyers have disputed part of the rules.

“The law does not grant the attorney general the authority to determine conflict of interest on a particular issue,” Netanyahu’s attorneys wrote on his behalf in a response to the court last week, claiming that only the prime minister himself is authorized to make such a determination.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, speaks with then-Cabinet Secretary Avichai Mandelblit during the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem, September 21, 2014. (AP/Menahem Kahana, Pool/File)

“The prime minister is of the opinion that there is no place for the restrictions stated in the section of the opinion regarding involvement in the method of appointments,” Netanyahu’s lawyers wrote. “This is an issue that is an important part of the coalition agreement and the political controversy in the Knesset, and imposing restrictions on the prime minister on this issue will harm the fulfillment of the voter’s will.”

The High Court of Justice will consider the issue on Thursday.

According to the Haaretz daily, Mandelblit plans on recommending that Netanyahu step down as premier if he doesn’t agree to the conflict of interest arrangement.

Netanyahu in August rejected an earlier draft of the conflict of interest arrangement proposed by Mandelblit, claiming that the attorney general himself was in a conflict of interest, since he made the decision late last year to indict the prime minister in three corruption cases.

But the premier subsequently told the High Court of Justice that he would take no role in appointing senior Justice Ministry officials or an Israel Police commissioner.

Netanyahu’s trial on charges of accepting bribes, fraud, and breach of trust opened in May in the Jerusalem District Court.

Netanyahu is accused of offering to advance legislation benefiting powerful Israeli media moguls in exchange for more positive coverage in their publications. He has also been charged with accepting some $200,000 in illicit gifts such as cigars and champagne from two billionaires — Hollywood-based Israeli movie mogul Arnon Milchan and Australian magnate James Packer.

He denies any wrongdoing and has derided the cases as a politically motivated witchhunt, souring ties between him and Mandelblit.

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