Former minister Meir Sheetrit announced Monday that he was stepping down from the search committee to find a new attorney general, after an outcry that saw several ministers object over past allegations against him of sexual harassment.
In a letter announcing his resignation, Sheetrit denounced the “savage attacks” against him and said the accusations were “a lie and false.”
“I am afraid that in the atmosphere created without any justification, the appointment process [of an attorney general] will be harmed,” Sheetrit wrote.
“I want the most suitable person to be chosen for the job. I was amazed at the blatant attack on me while relying on a false story that has no truth to it,” he wrote.
“I am scornful of all those who feign piety and who, without examining the substance of the matter, blindly lashed out on a topic that was pedaled around and hashed out about eight years ago,” Sheetrit said.
Justice Minister Gideon Sa’ar, who proposed Sheetrit for the role, will now have to find an alternative candidate who will support his controversial plan to split the attorney general job into two, with one person serving as the government’s legal adviser and another as chief state prosecutor.
Sa’ar responded to Sheetrit’s resignation, saying: “I respect the decision of former minister Meir Sheetrit. I am sorry for the mental anguish caused to him by responding to my request [to join the committee].”
The accusations against Sheetrit, a former government minister, surfaced in 2014 when it was revealed he paid a former housekeeper to keep silent about alleged sexual harassment accusations. Sheetrit was never indicted, as the woman refused to cooperate with the investigation.
Sa’ar had defended his choice of Sheetrit, saying that he had denied the accusations and noting no charges were ever filed.
Despite Sa’ar’s support, a number of his colleagues opposed Sheetrit’s candidacy, with five ministers from the left-wing Labor and Meretz parties voting against him.
“The members of the search committee for the all-important position of attorney general must be unblemished. That’s not the case here,” Transportation Minister Merav Michaeli, who heads Labor, said.
Environmental Protection Minister Tamar Zandberg of Meretz cited concerns over Sheetrit’s integrity.
“There’s a question here of sexual harassment and hush money. Why choose him of all the existing options?” Zandberg asked.
Economy Minister Orna Barbivai of the centrist Yesh Atid party abstained from the vote.
In response to the objections, Deputy Attorney General Gil Limon said there was no legal impediment to appointing Sheetrit.
Sa’ar had explained during the cabinet meeting where the candidacy was discussed that he wanted a former justice minister — a post Sheetrit held between 2001 and 2003 — on the panel rather than a former attorney general, because “a minister reflects the viewpoint of the government as a ‘customer’ of the attorney general.”
The justice minister was referring to the attorney general’s twin roles of both legal adviser to the government and the state’s chief prosecutor. Sa’ar and other conservative critics have argued this creates a conflict of interest, as the attorney general is tasked with overseeing the prosecution of members of the government whose moves he is also charged with defending.
The justice minister is championing a plan that splits the role into two, with one person serving as the government’s legal adviser and another as chief state prosecutor.
Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit appeared to strongly denounce Sa’ar’s proposal last month as a threat to democracy.
Mandelblit’s six-year term as attorney general is set to end in February. Former Supreme Court justice Asher Grunis was tapped last week to head the search committee for finding Mandelblit’s replacement. The other committee members were Sheetrit, New Hope MK Zvi Hauser, a representative of the Israel Bar Association and an academic.
Previous attempts to split the role were widely seen as moves motivated by political or personal interests, since they typically came from governments whose then-prime ministers were facing criminal indictment — including Ehud Olmert in 2007-2008, and Benjamin Netanyahu several years ago.