Dismissing PM’s claims against him, AG says Netanyahu can’t appoint top cop

Mandelblit stands by intention to bar premier from making senior law enforcement appointments due to trial, after latter claimed AG himself in conflict of interest

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

Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit’s office dismissed on Monday allegations by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that he is in a conflict of interest, after Mandelblit instructed the premier, who is under criminal indictment, to recuse himself from making senior law enforcement appointments.

Netanyahu indicated on Friday that he would not heed Mandelblit’s instruction, continuing a war of words between the two over the matter.

Netanyahu also said that he rejected a draft conflict of interest arrangement proposed by Mandelblit, claiming that the attorney general himself was in a conflict of interest, since he made the decision late last year to indict the prime minister in three corruption cases.

Hebrew-language media reported that Netanyahu wrote to Mandelblit that his proposal “is unreasonable, lacks authority, and is marred by an inherent conflict of interest.”

Attorney Yossi Cohen, the lawyer of Sara and Benjamin Netanyahu at a court hearing regarding a lawsuit filed by Shira Raban at the Jerusalem Regional Labor Court, on November 8, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

“I hereby notify you that I reject the draft conflict of interests agreement you proposed,” Netanyahu wrote. “I will act in accordance with the binding conflict of interest rules, and I will take action to notify the state comptroller about the matter.”

The draft conflict of interest arrangement, which Mandelblit sent to Netanyahu last month, would bar the premier from appointing top legal or police officials, citing a conflict of interest due to the premier’s ongoing corruption trial, the Justice Ministry said at the time.

In that legal opinion, Mandelblit said Netanyahu must not be involved in the nomination of judges or the police commissioner, as well as any other appointments that would affect the work of the state prosecution, the Attorney General’s Office, or police investigations.

In a Monday letter to Netanyahu’s attorney Yossi Cohen, responding to the prime minister’s allegations, the Attorney General’s Office wrote that “this is not the first conflict of interest settlement made for the prime minister,” dismissing the premier’s claims that he was being singled out.

The letter added that during the tenures of Netanyahu’s predecessors, it had been tasked with reaching conflict of interest settlements with them. Netanyahu claimed last week that existing government rules stipulate that matters related to conflicts of interest are referred to the state comptroller or a former judge, not the attorney general.

Nonetheless, Mandelblit’s office accepted Cohen’s request for a meeting with Deputy Attorney General Dina Zilber to discuss his qualms over the AG’s draft version of the agreement.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, speaks with then-cabinet secretary Avichai Mandelblit, during the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem, September 21, 2014. (AP Photo/Menahem Kahana, Pool/File)

The Monday letter also clarified that the draft version has binding legal status even in the interim. Regardless, Mandelblit’s office said it plans on issuing a final version of the agreement by the end of the month.

Dismissing Netanyahu’s conflict of interest claim against him, Mandelblit’s office said in the letter that it “does not reconcile” with the fact that the premier’s defense team had already agreed to reach a conflict of interest settlement with the attorney general earlier this year.

The issue of senior law enforcement appointments has recently become a key issue in the coalition crisis between Netanyahu’s Likud party and Defense Minister Benny Gantz’s Blue and White.

A report this week said Likud was demanding several changes to the coalition deal. One of them was to cancel the formation of a professional committee tasked with making senior law enforcement appointments, and return that power to politicians. That demand is bitterly opposed by Blue and White’s Justice Minister Avi Nissenkorn.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during a press conference at the Health Ministry, July 23, 2020. (Kobi Gideon / GPO)

The prime minister in the past has also sought to advance legislation that would shield him from prosecution, though those efforts were put on ice with the formation of the unity government with Blue and White.

Netanyahu last month launched a scathing, unprecedented attack against Mandelblit, whom he appointed and who served previously as his cabinet secretary, accusing the AG of being part of a deep-state conspiracy aiming to oust the premier for political reasons.

Netanyahu was slammed by his rivals over the accusations, which he made in a series of tweets and retweets. A watchdog said it would file a police complaint for incitement over the matter.

The harangue came after Mandelblit told the Permits Committee at the State Comptroller’s Office that he opposed Netanyahu’s request to receive some NIS 10 million ($2.9 million) in outside funding for his legal defense in his corruption trial. The attorney general said the donation was tantamount to an illicit gift. The committee rejected the premier’s request on the basis of the attorney general’s recommendation.

Mandelblit indicted Netanyahu last year on charges of fraud and breach of trust in three criminal investigations, as well as bribery in one of them. The cases center on accusations that Netanyahu received illegal gifts and traded political favors for positive news coverage.

Netanyahu denies any wrongdoing, and claims without evidence that the left-wing opposition, media, police and state prosecution have conspired in an attempt to frame and oust him in a political coup.

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