AG: Netanyahu still bound by conflict of interest rules set up for his graft trial

Responding to petition, Baharav-Miara tells High Court that PM must abide by agreement barring him from involvement in appointments or legislation that could impact his legal case

(L) Gali Baharav-Miara on February 8, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90) and (R) Benjamin Netanyahu, November 2, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)
(L) Gali Baharav-Miara on February 8, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90) and (R) Benjamin Netanyahu, November 2, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu remains bound by conflict of interest rules barring him from making senior law enforcement and judicial appointments, or getting involved in legislative matters that may impact his ongoing trial on corruption charges, Attorney General Gali Baharav-Miara clarified Tuesday.

In a filing with the High Court of Justice, Baharav-Miara said a conflict of interest agreement drawn up by her predecessor Avichai Mandelblit in late 2020 remained in effect.

Netanyahu previously contended he was not subject to the agreement, but the High Court of Justice ruled in March 2021 that he must abide by it.

Under the conflict of interest arrangement, Netanyahu cannot be involved in any matters that affect witnesses or other defendants in his trial, or in legislation that would impact the legal proceedings against him.

He also cannot intervene in any issues 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.

Baharav-Miara’s filing to the court was a response to a petition demanding she draw up an updated conflict of interest agreement for Netanyahu. Baharav-Miara rejected the petition, calling it “irrelevant” since she ruled that the previous agreement was still in effect.

The attorney general wrote in the filing that she sent Netanyahu a letter on Monday stressing he is still bound by the rules formulated by Mandelblit.

She also noted that Netanyahu would receive a conflict of interest arrangement that applies to all government ministers.

Netanyahu is on trial in three corruption cases, facing charges of fraud, breach of trust and bribery. He denies wrongdoing and claims the charges were fabricated in an attempted political coup led by the police, the state prosecution, the media, and leftist rivals.

Baharav-Miara’s filing came as Netanyahu’s new government pushes contentious legislation that will weaken Israel’s judiciary. The proposals have caused an uproar among parts of the public, the political opposition and legal professionals.

Justice Minister Yariv Levin speaks during a constitution committee meeting at the Knesset, the Israeli Parliament in Jerusalem, on January 11, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The reforms 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 convinced the public 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.

Government critics have long accused Netanyahu and allied lawmakers of seeking to overhaul the court system in order for the prime minister to wriggle out of criminal charges leveled against him. While Levin did not portray Netanyahu’s trial as the impetus for the judicial makeover presented earlier this month, his comments to the Knesset plenum underlined the tangle of political and personal interests surrounding the hot-button issue.

Netanyahu and his government have backed the reforms as necessary to rebalance power between an activist judiciary and the people’s elected representatives. Baharav-Miara, the Supreme Court president, and political opposition leaders have attacked the reforms as destructive to democracy and dangerous to civil liberties.

Critics say that along with other planned legislation, the overhaul will impact Israel’s democratic character by upsetting its system of checks and balances, granting almost all power to the executive branch, and leaving minorities undefended.

Reforming the court has been a major conservative goal for over a decade, with many on the right and among the ultra-Orthodox frustrated by what they see as an activist bench made up of progressives undermining the country’s right-wing majority.

On Saturday evening, an estimated 80,000 Israelis took to the streets in Tel Aviv, with additional demonstrations in Jerusalem and Haifa, to protest the government’s judicial reform plan. A counter-protest in support of the plan is being planned for later this week.

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