AG: Security cabinet can’t hold votes until permanent justice minister appointed

Amid tensions with Iran, Avichai Mandelblit’s ruling hamstrings high-level panel that approves military operations; order also ties hands of coronavirus cabinet

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)
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)

Amid an ongoing rift between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Benny Gantz, Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit issued a legal opinion Wednesday night saying the high-level security cabinet and coronavirus cabinet cannot hold votes until a full-time justice minister has been appointed.

Israel has been without a justice minister since early this month after Gantz’s maximal 3-month term as acting justice minister expired. Netanyahu can’t take the role since he is a criminal defendant, and has blocked attempts to approve another candidate.

Gantz has been demanding that he be tapped as full-time minister, with Netanyahu refusing, in yet another political spat to affect the country under the current power-sharing government.

According to Mandelblit, the lack of a permanent justice minister violates the laws passed by the government to ensure equal representation of Netanyahu and Gantz’s respective blocs within the so-called national unity government.

“As long as the members of the security cabinet do not comply with the provision of equality between the number of ministers who are members of each of the blocs, it will not be able to exercise its powers by means of valid decisions,” Mandelblit wrote to cabinet secretary Tzachi Braverman.

He did, however, state that the security cabinet, which decides on launching military operations, may convene in “urgent situations.” The ruling comes amid soaring tensions between Israel and Iran.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) and Defense Minister Benny Gantz face away from each other during the swearing-in of the 24th Knesset (Knesset spokesperson’s office)

Last week, Mandelblit warned Netanyahu and Gantz that the continued lack of a justice minister will have “far-reaching consequences from a public health point of view.”

In the letter to the two leaders, Mandelblit said that starting April 21, thousands of detainees and prisoners will have to be physically brought to court for arrest and remand hearings, since video conferencing won’t be allowed due to the lack of a minister. Since many detainees and prisoners aren’t vaccinated against COVID-19, bringing them to court could pose a health risk.

Additionally, some aspects of the pandemic response will be harmed, Mandelblit warned.

His warning came after two separate petitions were filed last week with the High Court of Justice by good governance groups seeking to push the cabinet to nominate a justice minister or explain why it will not.

The lack of a justice minister has serious ramifications for the ability of the judicial system to function properly in some areas, including signing off on sentence reductions for inmates or extradition orders. It also affects the ability of the interim government to pass any new legislation, as government bills must first be okayed by the justice minister, who heads the Ministerial Committee for Legislation. This would even potentially affect urgent legislation regarding peace agreements and the battle against COVID-19.

Last month, Gantz castigated Netanyahu for blocking the appointment and said he had written to Mandelblit to ask whether the premier should be required to step down as prime minister over the decision.

The prime minister’s move to leave Israel without a justice minister represented a “clear instance of conflict of interest,” said Gantz, intimating that Netanyahu was interfering in the state legal establishment for personal reasons because he is on trial.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sits with his lawyers at a hearing in his corruption trial at the Jerusalem District Court, April 5, 2021. (Pool/AFP)

The first hearings in the evidentiary phase of Netanyahu’s trial for alleged bribery, fraud and breach of trust were held last week. The thrice-weekly hearings are set to resume on Monday.

Netanyahu, the first Israeli premier to be indicted while in office, denies any wrongdoing and has railed against the courts, prosecution and media for what he terms a “witch hunt.” He alleges the state prosecution, police, media and opposition are framing him in an attempted political coup.

Netanyahu cannot serve as justice minister himself due to the criminal charges against him, and last month the High Court of Justice ruled that he must abide by conflict of interest rules laid out by Mandelblit preventing him from appointing senior law enforcement and justice officials.

Under Mandelblit’s arrangement, Netanyahu cannot be involved in any matters that affect witnesses or other defendants in his graft trial, or in legislation that would impact the legal proceedings against him.

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