Attorney General Gali Baharav-Miara informed Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Friday that he has violated the conflict of interest agreement that allows him to govern during his ongoing corruption trial, and called his statements Thursday night and any further involvement in the coalition’s judicial overhaul “illegal and tainted by a conflict of interest.”
The harshly worded letter from Baharav-Miara came after Netanyahu announced that he would henceforth ignore the conflict of interest deal and deeply involve himself in the unfolding, deeply controversial judicial overhaul legislation.
The 2020 deal forbade Netanyahu from making senior law enforcement and judicial appointments or getting involved in legislative matters that may impact his ongoing trial on corruption charges. Netanyahu’s announcement Thursday night came hours after the Knesset passed a law designed to shield him from being removed from office for breaking its boundaries.
“In your speech last night, you referred to the initiatives concerning the judicial system, and in particular to the composition of the committee for the appointment of judges, and announced that you are now directly involved in these initiatives,” Baharav-Miara wrote.
“In doing so, you violated the ruling of the Supreme Court, according to which, as a prime minister accused of crimes, you must refrain from taking actions that give rise to a reasonable fear of the existence of a conflict of interest between your personal interests relating to the criminal proceedings and your role as prime minister,” she wrote.
“Last night you announced publicly that you intend to violate the Supreme Court’s ruling, and to act contrary to the opinion of the attorney general, which obligates you according to this ruling,” she said, concluding that “your statement last night and any further actions by you that violate that agreement are completely illegal and in conflict of interest.”
Baharav-Miara also clarified to Netanyahu that the legislation passed on Thursday shielding him from being removed from office did not nullify his conflict of interest agreement.
The ramifications of Netanyahu’s violations were not immediately clear, but it was possible that he could be held in contempt of court if he continues to violate the order. Legal experts told The Times of Israel, however, that the High Court was unlikely to require Netanyahu not to involve himself in the judicial overhaul, since it would be very extreme to prevent the prime minister from dealing with the most important issue of the day.
In response to the attorney general’s letter, a source close to Netanyahu, who is on a trip to London, rejected her argument and conclusion.
“Every sane person understands that at this time of national crisis that has internal and external consequences for the State of Israel, the prime minister must act to try to bring about as broad as possible national consensus, to prevent violence, and to ensure law and order and the day-to-day functioning of the state,” the official said.
“Prime Minister Netanyahu did not violate any ruling of the Supreme Court or any conflict of interest settlement,” the source added.
“The Prime Minister’s announcement yesterday has no bearing on his personal affairs. In any case, Prime Minister Netanyahu has already informed the Supreme Court that no new judge selected by the Committee for the Selection of Judges will directly or indirectly handle the Prime Minister’s affairs,” the official said.
Following Baharav-Miara’s announcement, the Movement for Quality Government in Israel, which has previously petitioned the court regarding Netanayhu’s conflict of interest, said it would submit a further petition asking that he be found “in contempt of court and demand that the sanctions prescribed by law be imposed on the prime minister, including heavy fines and imprisonment.”
“A prime minister who does not obey the court and its orders is an anarchist and [taking advantage] of his privilege,” the movement said in a statement.
“The rule of law also applies to the government, and the prime minister will have to submit to the law and obey the courts to the letter of the law,” the statement said, noting that laws apply to all people equally, “even the prime minister.”
On Thursday, the High Court of Justice ordered Netanyahu and the attorney general, as the representative of the government, to submit a response to a petition filed by the Movement for Quality Government against that day’s legislation preventing the court from being able to order a prime minister’s recusal.
The court did not, however, issue an interim order freezing implementation of the law, meaning it took effect immediately.
MQG argued in its petition that the law, an amendment to Basic Law: The Government, is designed for the benefit of one individual, Netanyahu, “undermines Israel’s system of government where the judiciary balances and checks the executive and legislature,” and will lead to “dictatorship.”
Netanyahu and Baharav-Miara have until April 24 to respond to the petition.
In his address to the nation Thursday, Netanyahu said his government will continue to charge ahead with the plan “responsibly,” while aiming to pass a core tenet of the overhaul next week.
On Thursday morning, the Knesset finalized a law to protect Netanyahu from being forced by the High Court into taking a leave of absence.
“Until today my hands were tied,” Netanyahu said. “So tonight I announce to you, no more.”
Confirming his intention to get actively involved, Netanyahu added that he was “putting all other issues aside” and “will do everything I can to find a solution for the sake of our people, our state.”
The prime minister attempted to strike a conciliatory tone in his speech, acknowledging that both proponents and opponents of the legislation have valid concerns and saying he would take action to address both. But he also confirmed that his government will not pause its legislative sprint and will seek to pass one of the most important elements of the plan next week — a bill to put key Supreme Court appointments directly in coalition control.
“The law that will pass in the Knesset next week is a law that does not control the court — it balances and diversifies it,” he asserted. “It opens the doors of the court to views and publics and vast sectors that hitherto were excluded from it.”
Netanyahu insisted that “we don’t want a controlled court, we want a balanced court.”
Opposition leaders have said they will not negotiate on the shakeup until the coalition takes a legislative pause, and will not engage during the Knesset’s upcoming April break if the judicial appointments law passes first.
Netanyahu’s speech came amid mounting protests against his government and the first signs of possible rebellion from within the Likud.