Citing ‘national crisis,’ Netanyahu tells court he must be involved in overhaul
Responding to petition calling for him to be held in contempt of court, PM denies any conflict of interest arising from his ongoing corruption trial
Jeremy Sharon is The Times of Israel’s legal affairs and settlements reporter
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu insisted in a filing to the High Court of Justice on Sunday that there is no substantive conflict between his ongoing corruption trial and his government’s far-reaching legal reforms, and asked the justices to reject a request to hold him in contempt of court for involving himself in the matter.
Attorneys for Netanyahu laid out this position in response to a request by the Movement of Quality Government (MQG) for the High Court to hold the prime minister in contempt for what the organization says was his violation last month of a conflict of interest agreement approved by the court in 2020 and updated earlier this year.
They said that the consequences of the overhaul program are so far reaching, giving rise to what they called a “national crisis,” that he was obligated by dint of his office to be intimately involved in managing the situation.
They also said that in order to shore up his legal position, he was willing for it to be determined that judges appointed following the passage of the judicial overhaul legislation would not be involved in his trial.
In an announcement on March 24, Netanyahu said he was starting to involve himself in the debate within his coalition over the judicial overhaul bills, due to the centrality of that agenda to his government and the controversy it had stirred up, both in the country at large and also within his own party.
That statement led MQG to accuse Netanyahu of violating a conflict of interest agreement — drawn up initially by former attorney general Avichai Mandelblit and approved by the High Court in 2020 — that stipulated that he not involve himself in legislative matters that could impact his trial, or in the selection of judges.
Since one of the central pillars of the judicial overhaul program is to remake the Judicial Selection Committee, placing the appointment of all judges in the hands of the ruling coalition, MQG argued in a motion to the High Court on March 26 that Netanyahu was violating the conflict of interest agreement and was therefore in contempt of court.
This was based in part on the fact that Attorney General Gali Baharav Miara updated the conflict of interests agreement in February, after the establishment of the new government a month earlier, writing that the original agreement meant Netanyahu was unable to involve himself in the judicial overhaul legislation.
One of the concerns surrounding Netanyahu’s involvement in the legal reforms is that by giving the coalition control over judicial appointments, the prime minister would be able to affect the composition of the Supreme Court.
If Netanyahu were convicted in his corruption trial, which is being heard in the Jerusalem District Court, he could appeal to the Supreme Court, where his case could be deliberated by a panel including justices appointed by his current coalition.
In their response to the MQG petition filed on Sunday, Netanyahu’s attorneys insisted that the original conflict of interest agreement prohibited the prime minister from being involved in matters regarding the selection of judges themselves, not the composition of the Judicial Selection Committee.
They also argued that his position as prime minister and the critical nature of the coalition’s judicial overhaul program meant he was obligated by his role to involve himself in the issue.
“With all due respect to any conflict of interest agreement, when there is an issue that the president say could lead to a civil war; when the president of the United States and world leaders express a position on an issue and discuss it with the prime minister; when the issue affects the security of the country and its economy, the prime minister must by virtue of his position manage the matter and be involved in it — and this has nothing whatsoever to do with his personal affairs. This is the meaning of the role of the prime minister, and this is the meaning of the choice of the citizens of the State of Israel,” wrote Netanyahu’s attorneys.
They also pointed to the original conflict of interest agreement, which they said did not ban Netanyahu from being involved in the composition of the Judicial Selection Committee.
The original agreement stipulated: “You must avoid involvement in matters concerning the decisions of the [Judicial] Selection Committee, as far as judges of the Supreme Court and the Jerusalem District Court are concerned, as they may deal with the criminal proceedings in your case or matters connected to you, or in matters concerning the judges of the bench in your trial.”
The agreement added, however, that Netanyahu would “not be prevented from participating in the process of selecting the representative of the government or the Knesset in the Judicial Selection Committee.”
As such, Netanyahu’s lawyers insisted that he has acted in accordance with the agreement.
“He has not deviated from it at all and has not acted contrary to the provisions of the ruling given in this proceeding,” they wrote. “The ruling did not prohibit the prime minister from discussing the Judicial Selection Committee (but rather forbade him from instructing the members of the committee whom to choose.”
Netanyahu’s attorneys added that he had stated in the past that “it can be determined that judges appointed after changes are made to the Judicial Selection Committee come into affect will not serve as judges in hearings related to his trial, including directly related to his matters.”
The Movement for the Quality of Government said in response to Netanyahu’s filing that the prime minister’s claim “shows that he does not understand his actions and their consequences,” adding: “Netanyahu is prohibited from dealing with legal reform matters, but he knowingly chooses to violate the court’s orders, and even admits it.”