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Attorney general okays Netanyahu involvement in broadcaster dispute

Opposition lawmakers say Avichai Mandelblit’s decision disgraces his office, gives prime minister unjust control of media

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, speaks with then-cabinet secretary Avichai Mandelblit, right, during a weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem, on December 20, 2015. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, speaks with then-cabinet secretary Avichai Mandelblit, right, during a weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem, on December 20, 2015. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit ruled Sunday that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who recently relinquished the role as communications minister, can still deal with some matters relating to the field, including a coalition-straining dispute over a new public broadcaster.

The ruling follows charges of a conflict of interest that prompted Netanyahu to give up the additional ministerial position earlier this year.

Opposition lawmakers criticized the decision as disgracing the attorney general’s office and as enabling Netanyahu to exercise greater control of the media.

Mandelblit’s opinion came in response to a High Court petition filed by the Movement for a Quality Government rights group seeking to distance Netanyahu from handling the broadcast corporation, the establishment that he has sought to block.

“In communications, there are specific situations in which the prime minister is prevented from dealing with them, and an opinion, as such, was given to the prime minister in the past,” Mandelblit wrote. “In any case, these restrictions don’t cover all areas of communications and there are matters that the prime minister is permitted to be involved in without raising suspicions of a conflict of interest.”

Netanyahu has fought to bury the new broadcaster, Kan, after backing it in its early legislative stages. A new compromise worked out last week with Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon will see the broadcaster go on-air on May 15, but without its news division, which will see mass layoffs and will ultimately be operated primarily by workers from the current Israel Broadcast Authority.

Netanyahu resigned from the communications post in February amid a High Court petition and a criminal investigation into his alleged collusion with a major newspaper. The prime minister said at the time he would temporarily give up the Communications Ministry for a period of three months and appointed Regional Cooperation Minister Tzachi Hanegbi, considered a confidant of Netanyahu, to replace him for the duration.

Mandelblit, who was Netanyahu’s cabinet secretary before being appointed to the attorney general’s office, clarified that “due to his position, the prime minister is permitted to deal with various matters concerning government offices, and the fact that he is no longer the communications minister doesn’t negate his involvement in communications matters wearing the prime minister’s hat.”

Chaif of the left-wing Meretz party MK Zehava Galon in the Knesset, December 28, 2016. (Miriam Alster/FLASH90)
Chaif of the left-wing Meretz party MK Zehava Galon in the Knesset, December 28, 2016. (Miriam Alster/FLASH90)

While Netanyahu was warned to not deal with any matters that influence people with whom he has personal ties, it was also made clear that “in the current circumstances, his dealing with the Israeli public broadcast law doesn’t raise suspicions of conflict of interest.”

MK Zehava Galon, the leader of the left-wing opposition Meretz party, responded that Mandelblit’s response was further proof that he is “the family attorney to the government rather than the attorney-general, and is not suitable for the job.”

Galon described Mandelblit’s opinion as “nothing less than a disgrace to the institution of the attorney general.”

Chair of the opposition Zionist Union faction MK Merav Michaeli said that “Netanyahu’s attempt to take control of [public consciousness] through the media tramples on the system of law and justice,” the Hebrew-language Walla news website reported.

One of the corruption probes into the prime minister is examining allegations he negotiated for better personal coverage with the publisher of the mass circulation daily newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth in an alleged quid pro quo deal.

The prime minister is being investigated in two separate cases. The first, known as “Case 1000,” is looking into claims that he and his family received luxury gifts worth hundreds of thousands of shekels from businessmen, among them Israeli Hollywood movie producer Arnon Milchan.

A second probe, given the police moniker of “Case 2000,” pertains to recordings of conversations between Netanyahu and Yedioth publisher Arnon Mozes, in which he allegedly negotiated for better personal coverage with the publisher of the mass circulation daily newspaper in a quid pro quo deal.

Even before the corruption scandals, Netanyahu faced pressure to give up some of his ministries, which at various points in the latest government’s life included (and mostly still include) the ministries of economy, health, regional cooperation, communications and foreign affairs, in addition to the premiership.

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