Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit on Thursday further pushed back against calls for the dismissal of one of his deputies, saying criticism that she had politicized her role was being used to undermine his office.
Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked called Tuesday for Dina Zilber to be fired for criticizing the so-called “Loyalty in Culture” bill during a Knesset committee meeting. Zilber also condemned the current political climate in Israel and accused lawmakers from the right-wing coalition of seeking to minimize dissenting opinions.
“This [demand] turned into a lever that is meant to harm the institution of the attorney general,” Mandelblit was quoted as saying by the Haaretz daily at an event in Haifa marking 70 years of Israel’s legal system. “This is something I can’t agree to and I don’t think there is anyone, including the justice minister, who wants to harm it.”
Speaking at the same event, Shaked said, “I don’t want to hear about values. I want a professional legal adviser.”
Mandelblit, who spoke after Shaked, rebuffed her remarks.
“I also want a professional legal adviser. It is impossible to separate values. There is no clear line here… no black and white,” he said, according to Haaretz. “The thing I fear most is politics entering our office. Part of our DNA is to protect human rights and values.”
Speaking Tuesday at a meeting of the Knesset Education, Culture, and Sports Committee, Zilber said the legislation, which threatens to strip state funding from cultural institutions that produce art seen as overly critical of the government or the state, “poses real difficulties.”
The bill would transfer the authority to cut culture funding from the Finance Ministry to the Culture Ministry headed by populist Culture Minister Miri Regev.
The authority that the legislation aims to grant the Culture Ministry creates “a cooling and self-censoring effect,” Zilber told lawmakers at the meeting, adding: “The country is changing. These are not simple days and they are bringing us not only new laws but… confrontational dialogue, the wounding and scarring of our shared social fabric, labeling and branding — who is for us and who is against us.
“If there’s someone who is loyal, then is there also someone who is a traitor? A fifth column?” Zilber asked in the Knesset hearing.
She accused lawmakers of seeking “obedient legal advisers, compliant artists, a complacent media, and a deferential public with a single unified opinion.”
In a letter to Mandelblit, Shaked said the remarks showed Zilber “does not wish to act professionally and honestly as a legal adviser” and that her views would be better served “in running for political office.”
Zilber “crossed every line,” Shaked charged.
On Wednesday, Mandelblit responded to Shaked’s order, bluntly telling her she did not have the authority to issue such a demand. “The decision on which legal official under my jurisdiction will represent the attorney general is under my sole authority and responsibility,” he wrote to the justice minister in a letter, calling her demand “inappropriate.”
Mandelblit told Shaked he would look into Zilber’s comments in the Knesset to see if they were inappropriate for a government legal adviser. While the examination was underway, he said, Zilber would not represent his office at Knesset hearings.
Shaked seemed to tone down her criticism Wednesday following Mandelblit’s response, saying at a traffic safety conference in Tel Aviv, “If a bureaucrat in the public service wishes to engage in political debate, they are welcome to resign, join a political party or advocacy group, and have their voices heard. But they can’t do that as part of the government’s legal advisory system.”
She added that she would wait for the results of the attorney general’s inquiry before deciding whether to act on Zilber’s comments, which she said “have hurt the legal advisory system.”
During Tuesday’s Knesset committee meeting, the parliament’s own legal adviser, Eyal Yinon, also opined that the “loyalty in culture” bill was problematic and seemed to impose restrictions on freedom of speech.
“It can be seen as seemingly part of the imposition of restrictions on freedom of expression,” Yinon said, saying the bill faces “significant constitutional hurdles.”
The legislation cleared its first reading Monday with 55 lawmakers in favor and 44 opposed. It now heads to committee before returning to the plenum for two more Knesset votes before becoming law.