ISRAEL AT WAR - DAY 146

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As Netanyahu derides ‘gag order,’ AG says he’s allowed to urge calm on legal shakeup

AG’s office says conflict of interest agreement bars PM from directly dealing with overhaul, but he can help assuage public concerns about it; he terms the restriction ‘ridiculous’

Left: Attorney General Gali Baharav-Miara at her welcome ceremony in Jerusalem on February 8, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90). Right: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem, on January 11, 2023. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)
Left: Attorney General Gali Baharav-Miara at her welcome ceremony in Jerusalem on February 8, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90). Right: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem, on January 11, 2023. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

The Attorney General’s Office on Sunday evening said that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is allowed to make public statements calling for unity on the government’s planned judicial overhaul without this being considered a breach of his conflict of interest agreement. He is not, however, allowed to directly deal with the overhaul, but can ask another minister to do so on his behalf, the office said.

Netanyahu derided what he called the “gag order” as “patently ridiculous,” and said ambiguously that he and colleagues including President Isaac Herzog were “working” on it.

Netanyahu is barred under the 2020 conflict of interest arrangement from directly dealing with the government’s radical plans to overhaul the legal system, as it could affect the outcome of his ongoing corruption trial down the line.

A public letter written by Attorney General Gali Baharav-Miara’s deputy Gil Limon said the conflict of interest agreement does not restrict Netanyahu’s ability to make “public statements whose purpose is to keep public order and calm the situation among the public.”

Netanyahu’s office retorted that the premier “didn’t wait for the attorney general’s letter” and had been urging calm for weeks.

Addressing the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations on Sunday evening, Netanyahu said that, while Israel is “in the midst of a little debate about judicial reform” and he would like to discuss it at length and tell his audience not to worry, he could not elaborate.

He explained wryly that he was prevented from doing so, “because I’ve been given a gag order.”

“I’m not making this up. I mean, who am I? I’m just the prime minister of Israel — what have I got to say?” he told the US group’s annual mission event in Jerusalem.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks to the Conference of Presidents of American Jewish Organizations, in Jerusalem on February 19, 2023. (Noam Revkin / Flash90)

He called the order “patently ridiculous” and said he and colleagues, including Herzog, were “working on it.”

Herzog reportedly urged the attorney general last week to allow Netanyahu to take part in negotiations the president is trying to broker for a compromise on the overhaul proposals, but was reportedly rebuffed.

Deputy Attorney General Gil Limon (center) speaks at a meeting of the Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee on January 16, 2023. (Dani Shem-Tov/Knesset)

The dramatic shakeup, as advanced by Justice Minister Yariv Levin and backed by Netanyahu, would grant the government total control over the appointment of judges, including to the High Court, severely limit the High Court’s ability to strike down legislation, and enable the Knesset to re-legislate laws the court does manage to annul with a bare majority of just 61 MKs.

Critics say that along with other planned legislation, the sweeping reforms would undermine Israel’s democratic character by upsetting its system of checks and balances, granting almost all power to the executive branch and leaving individual rights unprotected and minorities undefended.

Netanyahu and other coalition members have dismissed the criticism, and Netanyahu insists the reform is overdue and will strengthen Israeli democracy.

The prime minister is currently on trial in three separate cases, where he is charged with one count of bribery and three of fraud and breach of trust.

Netanyahu denies wrongdoing in all three cases and has claimed that the charges constitute an effort by the media, political rivals, prosecutors, and law enforcement to force him from power.

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