Court gives Netanyahu 1 month to respond to petition to declare him unfit for office

Movement for Quality Government argues prime minister has violated conflict of interest deal barring him from involvement in matters that could impact his trial

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu leads a cabinet meeting in Jerusalem on February 5, 2023 (Alex Kolomoisky/POOL)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu leads a cabinet meeting in Jerusalem on February 5, 2023 (Alex Kolomoisky/POOL)

The High Court of Justice on Friday gave Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu one month to respond to a petition to declare him unfit for office and force him to take a leave of absence.

The Movement for Quality Government in Israel petitioned the court on Thursday, arguing that Netanyahu is in violation of a conflict of interest arrangement that bars him from involvement in matters that could impact his ongoing trial on graft charges.

It cited legislation his coalition is advancing that would drastically curb the High Court’s ability to strike down laws and give politicians full control over judicial picks.

The court on Friday said Netanyahu and Attorney General Gali Baharav-Miara would have to present their arguments by March 12.

Recent reports in Hebrew media claimed Baharav-Miara was looking into the possibility of ordering Netanyahu to step down for violations of the conflict of interest agreement, in light of his public remarks backing the judicial overhaul and alleged actions to advance it. Those reports were denied by the attorney general’s office.

But the clean government NGO is moving forward with the effort, saying in a statement that the premier “has proven that he is incapable of separating between his legal matters and the management of the country, and is trying to destroy democracy.”

Under the 2020 conflict of interest agreement, drawn up by then attorney general Avichai Mandelblit to enable Netanyahu to stay on as prime minister even though he is on trial, Netanyahu cannot be involved in any matters that affect witnesses or other defendants in the trial, or in legislation that would impact the legal proceedings against him.

He also cannot intervene in any issues 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 — where his trial is being conducted — and to the Supreme Court, which would hear any appeals in the case.

In its Thursday petition, the Movement for Quality Government acknowledged that the court has ruled against taking such a drastic step in the past. However, given the sweeping proposals the government is now advancing to significantly curb the power of the judiciary, the need for Netanyahu to take a leave of absence has become more urgent, it asserted.

Eliad Shraga, center, a lawyer and founder of the Movement for the Quality of Government, arrives for a court hearing at the Supreme Court in Jerusalem, on October 6, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The petition also takes issue with Netanyahu’s recent decision to appoint Likud MK David Amsalem to the position of junior minister within the Justice Ministry, asking the court to freeze the move immediately.

The Movement for Quality Government pointed out that Netanyahu recently met with Amsalem to discuss the planned judicial overhaul, which the group said also amounts to a violation of the premier’s conflict of interest arrangement.

Netanyahu is on trial in three corruption cases on charges of fraud and breach of trust, as well as bribery in one of them. He denies wrongdoing and claims without evidence that the charges were fabricated in an attempted political coup led by the police, the state prosecution, the media and left-wing rivals.

Netanyahu’s new government is in the midst of pushing contentious legislation that will seriously weaken the judiciary. The overhaul proposed by Justice Minister Yariv Levin would drastically limit the High Court of Justice’s power of judicial review of legislation; allow the Knesset to re-legislate laws if the court strikes them down; give the government control over judicial appointments; and turn ministry legal advisers into political appointees while making their counsel non-binding.

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