AG tells High Court: Netanyahu is bound by conflict of interest agreement

Mandelblit says legal opinion barring PM from appointing top law enforcement officials due to his criminal indictments ‘binds him by force of law’

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during a press conference at the Health Ministry in Jerusalem on December 9, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during a press conference at the Health Ministry in Jerusalem on December 9, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit told the top court Tuesday that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is obligated by a conflict of interest ban preventing him from appointing top law enforcement officials due to the criminal indictments against him, despite the premier’s claims to the contrary.

“It must be determined that [the conflict of interest agreement] was drawn up with authority that binds [Netanyahu] by force of law,” the attorney general’s office wrote to the High Court of Justice.

Last month, the court gave the prime minister 30 days to explain why he believes he does not have to adhere to the restrictions drawn up by Mandelblit in relation to his indictment in three criminal cases.

Under Mandelblit’s 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 cannot intervene in matters 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.

Mandelblit says the arrangement does not require the approval of the premier, who has been battling with the attorney general for months and demanding the right to be involved in the appointment of the attorney general’s successor and other top legal officials.

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)

In a letter to the court last month, Mandelblit said that the legal framework for the agreement was not a recommendation or dependent on Netanyahu’s “good will.” He asked the court to intervene if the prime minister refuses to adhere to the agreement.

According to the Haaretz daily, Mandelblit plans on recommending that Netanyahu step down as premier if he doesn’t agree to adhere to the arrangement.

Netanyahu’s lawyers have argued that the attorney general does not have the authority to enforce the conflict of interest agreement without the consent of the prime minister.

Netanyahu in August rejected an earlier draft of the conflict of interest framework proposed by Mandelblit, claiming that the attorney general himself was in a conflict of interest, since he was the one who made the decision late last year to indict the prime minister.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is surrounded by Likud lawmakers as he gives a press statement ahead of the start of his trial at the Jerusalem District Court, May 24, 2020 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Netanyahu’s trial on charges of accepting bribes, fraud, and breach of trust opened in May in the Jerusalem District Court.

Netanyahu is accused of offering to advance legislation benefiting powerful Israeli media moguls in exchange for more positive coverage in their publications. He has also been charged with accepting some $200,000 in illicit gifts such as cigars and champagne from two billionaires — Hollywood-based Israeli movie mogul Arnon Milchan and Australian magnate James Packer.

He denies any wrongdoing and has derided the cases as a politically motivated witch hunt, souring ties between him and Mandelblit.

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