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Attorney General, Gantz urge Netanyahu to approve permanent justice minister

Mandelblit says ongoing situation in which multiple government offices are headed by interim ministers hurts and limits work bureaucrats are able to do

Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit speaks at an event at Bar Ilan University, March 4, 2020. (Flash90)
Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit speaks at an event at Bar Ilan University, March 4, 2020. (Flash90)

Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit penned a letter to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu Friday urging him to allow the appointment of a permanent justice minister, amid claims by Defense Minister Benny Gantz that the premier is blocking a cabinet vote on the matter.

“A situation in which the Justice Ministry is left without a permanent minister will cause severe damage to the ministry’s work and the functioning of the government,” Mandelblit wrote to Netanyahu.

Gantz has been serving as interim justice minister since Avi Nisseenkorn resigned from the post earlier this year, but the Blue and White chairman’s term will expire at the beginning of April. He has demanded to be given a permanent appointment.

Under the coalition deal between Netanyahu and Gantz — which remains in effect until a new government is sworn in following the election — the Justice Ministry is under the purview of Gantz’s bloc of the government. He can select whom he wishes to head the portfolio, and Netanyahu has no say in the matter. However, Netanyahu can block a cabinet vote on such an appointment, which he has apparently been doing for months now.

Mandelblit in his letter noted that there are several other government offices that are being headed by interim ministers since the coalition broke down late last year. These include the Communications Ministry, Water and Higher Education Ministry, the Social Equality Ministry, the Welfare Ministry and the Science and Technology Ministry. These were all offices headed by ministers from the Blue and White-led bloc, which faced a flood of resignations after elections were called.

Defense Minister Benny Gantz speaks at the annual Jerusalem Conference of the ‘Besheva’ group in Jerusalem, on March 14, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

“As I have already clarified, a situation in which the State of Israel is left without ministers, including a permanent justice minister, for an unknown period, is a very unusual and legally problematic situation,” Mandelblit wrote.

The attorney general noted that the powers of an interim justice minister are significantly more limited than those of a permanent justice minister.

Gantz called on Netanyahu to allow his appointment as a full-time justice minister to come to a vote at the cabinet meeting on Monday.

“I will do everything in my power to prevent Netanyahu…from harming Israeli citizens,” Ganz said in a Friday statement.

Netanyahu and Gantz have fought over control of the dysfunctional power-sharing government since it was formed last May, but their struggles have become even more pronounced since their agreement collapsed in December, leading to this week’s election.

On Thursday the High Court of Justice ruled that Netanyahu must abide by conflict of interest rules laid out by Mandelblit and cannot intervene in the appointment of senior law enforcement and justice officials.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Public Security Minister Amir Ohana in Tel Aviv, on December 01, 2020 (Miriam Alster/FLASH90)

Netanyahu has previously said he is not bound by the opinion drawn up by Mandelblit, which clips his wings on appointments of officials due to his criminal trial.

However, the court rejected the contention of the petitioner, the Movement for Quality Government group, that the restrictions should also be imposed on Netanyahu’s surrogate, Public Security Minister Amir Ohana, noting that a conflict of interest agreement is a personal arrangement made for a specific person — in this case, the prime minister.

The court said that the minister, and any others involved in the decisions, should refrain from communicating with the prime minister on the matter.

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 (among other courts) — where his trial is being conducted — and to the Supreme Court, which would hear any appeals in the case.

The petition to the court had revolved around the appointment of Amit Aisman as state prosecutor by then-justice minister Avi Nissenkorn, which had been opposed by Ohana, who was acting as a stand-in for Netanyahu and refusing to bring the appointment up for a vote.

Then-Justice Minister Avi Nissenkorn seen at the Knesset, October 21, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Mandelblit insisted the conflict of interest arrangement he drew up did not require the approval of the premier, who has been battling with the attorney general for years and demanding the right to be involved in the appointment of the attorney general’s successor and other top legal officials.

In a letter to the court last year, Mandelblit said that the legal framework for the arrangement 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.

Netanyahu’s lawyers have argued that the attorney general does not have the authority to enforce the conflict of interest arrangement 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.

Netanyahu faces charges of fraud and breach of trust in three cases, as well as bribery in one of them. He has denied wrongdoing and claimed that the charges are an effort by political rivals, the media, law enforcement, and prosecutors to remove him from office.

The evidentiary stage of the trial is set to start on April 5, having been postponed until after the elections.

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