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Attorney general appears to push back against Sa’ar’s plan to split the role

Avichai Mandelblit argues post of military advocate general works better when having both defense and prosecutorial hats… and hints he’s also talking about his own job

Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit with Gideon Sa'ar at a ceremony in Jerusalem, on June 14, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)
Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit with Gideon Sa'ar at a ceremony in Jerusalem, on June 14, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit indicated Thursday that he was opposed to a major reform that would split his job into two separate positions, pushing back against the plans of new Justice Minister Gideon Sa’ar.

Currently, the attorney general serves both as legal adviser to the government and as the state’s chief prosecutor, meaning he can find himself tasked with overseeing the prosecution of members of the government whose moves he is also charged with defending — a situation conservative critics have argued creates a conflict of interest.

Speaking on a panel at Bar-Ilan University, Mandelblit noted that a state commission had previously considered splitting the military advocate general — the army’s equivalent of the attorney general — into legal adviser and chief prosecutor roles.

“The Turkel Committee rejected splitting the military advocate general’s responsibilities and instead came up with different ideas to bolster the independence of the army’s prosecutorial bodies, under the general position of the head of the military justice system wearing two hats,” he said.

The Turkel Commission was formed in 2010, when Mandelblit was military advocate general, to examine the Mavi Marmara incident, in which soldiers were attacked while boarding a Turkish ship attempting to break the Gaza blockade. Several soldiers were badly injured in the ensuing melee and 10 Turkish activists were killed. The commission was headed by Jacob Turkel, a former Supreme Court justice.

Footage taken from a security camera aboard the Mavi Marmara, showing the activists preparing to resist IDF soldiers about to board the ship. (Photo by IDF Spokesperson / FLASH90)
Footage taken from a security camera aboard the Mavi Marmara, showing the activists preparing to resist IDF soldiers about to board the ship. (Israel Defense Forces/Flash90)

At the Bar-Ilan event, a book launch for fellow former military advocate general Menachem Finkelstein, Mandelblit said that in the case of the military, it is important for the person deciding whether a soldier or officer should be prosecuted to also know the army’s legal standing, justifying the combination of the two roles into one.

“The fact that at the top of the pyramid is one office-holder, with a wide and encompassing purview, ensures that the enforcement standards are in line with the essential legal norms that fall on the situation,” he said. “This prevents overenforcement that does not comport to the special challenges of fighting terror, and, on the other hand, also strengthens the attorney general in making sure that the rule of law is in effect even during combat.

Avichai Mandelblit, during his tenure as military advocate general. (Kobi Gideon/Flash90)

“Anyone who thinks there’s a connection here to other current affairs is not necessarily mistaken,” he added, in apparent reference to Sa’ar’s plan to split the attorney general post.

Sa’ar has made the plan a centerpiece of his agenda. Under his plan, one person would serve as the government’s legal adviser, while another would serve as chief state prosecutor. Currently, the state attorney, who acts as the chief prosecutor, serves under the attorney general, who has final say on prosecutions.

Previous attempts to split the role were widely seen as moves motivated by political or personal interests, since they typically came from governments whose prime ministers were facing criminal indictment — including Ehud Olmert in 2007-2008, and Benjamin Netanyahu several years ago.

A longtime associate of Netanyahu appointed by him to the attorney general role in 2016, Mandelblit nonetheless led the criminal corruption charges into the former prime minister, which ultimately resulted in Netanyahu’s indictment.

Mandelblit has said in the past that he is opposed to the move to split the attorney general role into two jobs.

On Monday, he heaped praise on Defense Minister Benny Gantz, who stood in as justice minister during the waning days of Netanyahu’s interim government, for defending the attorney general position from attempts by Netanyahu allies to defang it.

“You stood as a brick wall to thwart the attempts to undermine the status of the attorney general,” Mandelblit told Gantz, in what was seen as veiled criticism of Sa’ar’s plans.

Sa’ar, a conservative critic of the justice system, is seen as having a better chance at pushing the reform through, due to his lack of personal interest, though he will likely face opposition within the judicial system he oversees.

He reportedly fought to have government support for the reform be included in New Hope’s coalition agreement. The move would need to be approved by the government and then enshrined in Knesset legislation, a process he reportedly is seeking to kick off in September.

Speaking Monday, Sa’ar said the justice system has problems he wants to fix, but that he was not aiming to destroy the system.

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