AG Mandelblit seeks new rules to prosecute government leaks

Attorney General’s Office publishes 2019 work plan meant to fend off right’s accusations of political bias; includes efforts to bolster lawmaking for West Bank settlements

Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit attends a ceremony for new Justice Minister Amir Ohana at the Justice Ministry in Jerusalem on June 23, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit attends a ceremony for new Justice Minister Amir Ohana at the Justice Ministry in Jerusalem on June 23, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit is drawing up new guidelines that will enable prosecutors to go after public servants who leak confidential information to the press, amid criticism over repeated leaks in recent months from police interrogations of top politicians.

The new guidelines, publicized on Sunday, are part of the Attorney General’s Office’s annual work plan for the current year.

The attorney general is also the government’s legal adviser and oversees the state prosecution and the public defender’s office.

The publication of the work plan is part of an effort to increase transparency in the agency, according to Raz Nizri, one of Mandelblit’s deputies.

“The importance of this report for us is to show that the attorney general’s office isn’t just the Netanyahu [corruption] cases, or Deri’s, or Litzman’s, or some other minister or another. We do an enormous amount of work, a large part of which is carried out far from the public eye. The attorneys in the Advisory and Legislation [Department] work days and nights, and are full partners in all the government’s many activities,” Nizri was quoted saying by Hebrew media.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (left) and then-cabinet secretary Avichai Mandelblit at a weekly cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem on February 2, 2014. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

He pointed to the office’s legal work underpinning the Justice Ministry’s recent reforms of bankruptcy rules, online intellectual property law, changes to laws related to manslaughter and other issues taken up by the legal advisory department.

The new public relations effort comes amid growing criticism from politicians under investigation, especially Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his supporters, who have claimed that their legal troubles were the result of the political leanings of the country’s top prosecutors.

Netanyahu has especially railed at the steady stream of leaks to the media from police interrogations in his three corruption cases, including near-verbatim quotes from questioning of Netanyahu himself, that have been broadcast on primetime evening television news programs over the past year.

Such leaks, Netanyahu has charged, are “criminal,” and the failure to investigate and stop them has denied him due process and demonstrated the politicization of the probes.

According to the work plan, the Advisory and Legislation Department’s Criminal Law Division, headed by Deputy Attorney General Amit Marari, is hard at work developing a new policy that will enable prosecutors to go after leakers in the public service.

Raz Nizri (photo credit: Yossi Zamir/Flash90)
Deputy Attorney General Raz Nizri. (Yossi Zamir/Flash90)

The guidelines say prosecutors are to pursue the leakers, not journalists who report the leaks, except in special cases, such as media outlets that violate court-imposed gag orders on an investigation. Prosecutors are ordered under the draft guidelines to take care to balance the importance of journalistic confidentiality with the needs of an investigation.

The plan also contains advice for the government: leave the decision on pursuing leakers to prosecutors. Don’t pass legislation tying the prosecution’s hands in such cases.

The new guidelines on government leaks is one of three major legal research projects detailed in the work plan of the office’s various departments; the other two concern the West Bank.

The Public Constitutional Law Division of the department, led by Nizri, is working on a project to create laws and regulations in the West Bank that mimic those in force within the bounds of Israeli sovereignty.

Since Israel’s military is the legal sovereign in the West Bank under Israeli law, basic questions of legal administration for Israelis living there, from traffic law to labor protections, exist by force of military directives issued by the IDF’s head of Central Command.

Most Palestinians in the West Bank live under a mix of military directives and Palestinian Authority law in the roughly 40 percent of the West Bank under Palestinian civil control.

The city of Ma’ale Adumim, one of the largest Israeli settlements in the West Bank. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Right-wing politicians and settlement advocates have long called for the military to enact rules in the West Bank that parallel existing civil legislation in Israel, granting Israeli settlers similar legal protections and regulations that exist for other Israelis.

Nizri’s department has recently established a special task force to develop new directives, with the Justice Ministry keen to streamline the process to ensure that any legislation passed in the Knesset has a parallel government directive enacting similar rules in the West Bank almost in real time.

The policy allows the government to manage Israeli settlements in the West Bank under the same laws as those that pertain within the Green Line, while avoiding the politically and diplomatically costly step of directly applying Israeli civil law in the territory, a move tantamount to annexation.

The third plank of this year’s work plan, now underway in the Civil Law Division under Erez Kamenitz, another of Mandelblit’s deputies, is the development of “legal tools for the implementation of the government’s policy vis-a-vis settlement, and legal work enabling legislation related to planning and construction and real estate in Judea and Samaria,” the plan says, using the biblical and official Israeli name for the territory.

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