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Ex-MK to join AG search committee despite objection over sexual harassment claim

Several cabinet members oppose justice minister’s choice of Meir Sheetrit for panel, noting past allegations by former housekeeper of sexual wrongdoing

Then-MK Meir Shitrit at the Knesset on October 27, 2014. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Then-MK Meir Shitrit at the Knesset on October 27, 2014. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The government on Sunday approved Justice Minister Gideon Sa’ar’s candidate for the search committee to find a new attorney general, after several ministers objected over past allegations against him of sexual harassment.

The accusations against Meir Sheetrit, a former government minister, surfaced in 2014 when it was revealed he paid a former housekeeper to keep silent about the alleged sexual harassment charges. Sheetrit was never indicted by police, as the women refused to cooperate with the investigation.

Sa’ar defended his choice of Sheetrit during the weekly cabinet meeting, saying that he had denied the accusations and noting no charges were ever filed.

“He was never suspected or convicted of anything,” Sa’ar said. “I can’t find a reason to disqualify him.”

Despite Sa’ar’s support, a number of his colleagues continued to oppose Sheetrit’s candidacy, with five ministers from the left-wing Labor and Meretz parties voting against him.

“The members of the search committee for the all-important position of attorney general must be unblemished. That’s not the case here,” Transportation Minister Merav Michaeli, who heads Labor, said at the meeting.

Environmental Protection Minister Tamar Zandberg of Meretz cited concerns over Sheetrit’s integrity.

“There’s a question here of sexual harassment and hush money payments. Why  choose him of all the existing options?” Zandberg asked.

Economy Minister Orna Barbivai of the centrist Yesh Atid party abstained, according the Ynet news site.

Environment Minister Tamar Zandberg (left) and Transportation Minister Merav Michaeli. (Flash90)

In response to the objections, Deputy Attorney General Gil Limon said there was no legal impediment to appointing Sheetrit.

Sa’ar explained during the meeting that he wanted a former justice minister — a post Sheetrit held between 2001 and 2003 — on the panel rather than a former attorney general because “a minister reflects the viewpoint of the government as a ‘customer’ of the attorney general.”

The justice minister was referring to the attorney general’s twin roles of both legal adviser to the government and the state’s chief prosecutor. Sa’ar and other conservative critics have argued this creates a conflict of interest, as the attorney general is tasked with overseeing the prosecution of members of the government whose moves he is also charged with defending.

Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit (left) with Gideon Sa’ar at a ceremony in Jerusalem, on June 14, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

The justice minister is championing a plan that splits the role into two, with one person serving as the government’s legal adviser and another as chief state prosecutor.

Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit appeared to strongly denounce Sa’ar’s proposal last week as a threat to democracy.

Mandelblit’s six-year term as attorney general is set to end in February. Former Supreme Court justice Asher Grunis was tapped last week to head the search committee for finding Mandelblit’s replacement. The other committee members include Sheetrit, New Hope MK Zvi Hauser, a representative of the Israel Bar Association and an academic.

Previous attempts to split the role were widely seen as moves motivated by political or personal interests, since they typically came from governments whose then-prime ministers were facing criminal indictment — including Ehud Olmert in 2007-2008, and Benjamin Netanyahu several years ago.

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