Courts, bar association slam Netanyahus’ lawyer for maligning judge

Judicial Authority ‘repulsed’ by Yossi Cohen’s comments on Dita Proginin, who ruled PM’s wife had abused employees

Raoul Wootliff is the Times of Israel's former political correspondent and producer of the Daily Briefing podcast.

Sara Netanyahu, the wife of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, alongside attorney Yossi Cohen at the Jerusalem Regional Labor Court on October 29, 2015 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Sara Netanyahu, the wife of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, alongside attorney Yossi Cohen at the Jerusalem Regional Labor Court on October 29, 2015 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

In a rare move, both the Israel Bar Association and the state Judicial Authority on Wednesday criticized a lawyer representing Sara Netanyahu for disparaging comments he made about a judge who ruled against the prime minister’s wife a day earlier

In a letter, the Israel Bar Association (IBA), which represents all Israeli lawyers, blasted attorney Yossi Cohen, a long-term associate of the Netanyahu family, for a series of statements against Judge Dita Proginin, the president of the National Labor Court, suggesting she had been influenced by a campaign against Sara Netanyahu.

“Statements like these are unacceptable and they need to be denounced and opposed,” the letter read.

Similarly, the Judicial Authority released a statement calling the comments “irresponsible,” and said it planned to lodge an official complaint against Cohen with the bar association.

On Tuesday Proginin awarded NIS 120,000 ($31,000) in damages to a former employee of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s official residence, ruling that Sara Netanyahu had mistreated him with verbal abuse and unreasonable demands. In her ruling, Proginin described Mrs. Netanyahu’s behavior toward her employees as “unreasonable and humiliating.”

Judge Dita Proginin oversees the lawsuit brought by Menny Naftali against Sara Netanyahu in early 2016. (screen capture: YouTube)
Judge Dita Proginin (screen capture: YouTube)

In a statement released immediately after the ruling, Cohen rejected the decision and said the case had “been handled in a one-sided manner.”

“The real abusive treatment is that of Judge Proginin, who, as expected, again blatantly ignored the testimony of Mrs. Netanyahu,” he said, announcing that his team would appeal the ruling.

Challenged over his comments by Channel 2 news Tuesday evening, Cohen doubled down on the criticism, saying that Proginin “did not preside over the case in a fair way.”

“A concerted effort of indoctrination [against Sara Netanyahu] and a daily effort to sully her name with deceitful claims over years has clearly pervaded some people’s judgment,” he said.

The Judicial Authority defended Proginin Wednesday and said it was “repulsed by the severe and irresponsible comments.” In unprecedented language, a statement released by the state body, which represents the country’s courts and judges, said Cohen’s comments were “part of an effort to intimidate the courts regarding the case of the Prime Minister’s Residence.”

The statement said the Judicial Authority would file an official complaint with the Israel Bar Association.

The association, which has legal authority to discipline and disbar lawyers over ethical matters, said it would not tolerate such statements toward a judge.

“Incitement and slander toward [Proginin], who has no way of responding, cannot be accepted,” it said.

Sara Netanyahu, the wife of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and advocate Yossi Cohen in the Jerusalem Regional Labor Court, October 29, 2015. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Sara Netanyahu and advocate Yossi Cohen in the Jerusalem Regional Labor Court, October 29, 2015. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

“The Israel Bar Association plays an integral role in the rule of law and therefore feels an obligation to protect the justice system and oppose statements that stray from the boundaries of acceptable criticism,” the letter concluded. There was no mention of disciplinary action.

Responding to the criticism, Cohen penned a retraction Wednesday, which he requested be distributed to the press by the Prime Minister’s Office, saying he did not intend to personally offend Proginin.

“My criticism of the court focused on the specific legal process that damaged the rights of Mrs. Netanyahu by preventing her from bringing witnesses… I am sorry if my words were understood differently,” he wrote.

Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked, speaking Wednesday to Army radio, refused to comment directly on Cohen’s comments but said she did not think “personal criticism of a judge is acceptable in a democratic country.”

“The judges in Israel are independent and work according to the law. One can disagree with specific rulings, as I myself have done, but the criticism should not be directed at a specific judge,” she said.

Speaking to Army Radio on Wednesday, Effi Naveh, chairman of the bar association, said Cohen should apologize personally to Judge Proginin.

Cohen had previously filed a request to dismiss Proginin from presiding over the case due to the fact that she had already ruled against Sara Netanyahu in March in a separate case of abuse of staff.

“The court’s mind is already made up,” Cohen wrote in his request, suggesting that Proginin would not give Netanyahu a fair trial.

In the earlier case, Prognin had awarded former Netanyahu caretaker Menny Naftali a sum of NIS 170,000 (about $43,735) in damages, accepting his claims of mistreatment by Mrs. Netanyahu during his employment at the Prime Minister’s Residence.

The state rejected Cohen’s request.

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