'If the law is not supreme, the fortress will fall'

Former AG: Netanyahu seeking to use judicial reform to bring trial to improper end

Avichai Mandelblit, former close confidant of Netanyahu who served as his attorney general, says PM defended the court in the past, avoided making Yariv Levin justice minister

Jeremy Sharon is The Times of Israel’s legal affairs and settlements reporter

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (left) and then-cabinet secretary Avichai Mandelblit at a weekly cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem, on February 2, 2014. (Yonatan Sindel/ Flash90/ File)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (left) and then-cabinet secretary Avichai Mandelblit at a weekly cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem, on February 2, 2014. (Yonatan Sindel/ Flash90/ File)

Former attorney general Avichai Mandelblit accused Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of advancing the sweeping and drastic overhaul of the legal and judicial system his new government has proposed in order to bring a premature end to his ongoing criminal trial.

Asked in an interview with Channel 12, excerpts of which were broadcast Thursday, about the radical legal reforms being advanced by Justice Minister Yariv Levin and other key members of the coalition, Mandelblit claimed that the timing of the proposals combined with Netanyahu’s previous position on the judiciary indicated that the corruption trial was a key motivating factor for the prime minister.

“I think that there is a question everyone should be asking themselves,” said Mandelblit, who served as Netanyahu’s cabinet secretary in 2013-2016 before being appointed attorney general.

“It’s nothing new that these [judicial overhaul proposals] are the position of Yariv Levin. But Netanyahu for years never appointed him [as justice minister]. Why did he appoint him now to the position? My assessment and opinion is that Netanyahu wants to bring about a situation in which his trial does not come to an end in a proper manner,” continued the former attorney general.

Regarding the broader aspects of the government’s judicial shakeup, Mandelblit said, “One cannot compromise over the independence of the judiciary.”

The interview will be broadcast in full later on Thursday.

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

After three years of police investigations into corruption allegations against Netanyahu, Mandelblit indicted him on charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust in November 2019, the first time an attorney general has indicted a sitting prime minister.

Netanyahu has in the past boasted of his efforts to protect the High Court of Justice, in particular from attempts to restrict its authority.

“There were proposals to reduce the High Court’s powers but I prevented all of them,” he told the Knesset Channel in 2012.

“There was a draft bill to hold [public] hearings for judges —  I shelved it; a proposal to change the composition of the Judicial Selection Committee – I shelved it,” he continued.

In recent weeks, however, the prime minister has strongly defended Levin and Religious Zionism MK Simcha Rothman’s legislation despite the drastic limitations it would place on the High Court and its powers of judicial review.

Levin has insisted his reform package is not designed to assist the legal troubles of anyone in the coalition, as has Rothman, who along with the Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee he chairs is preparing the legislation.

But linking his package of laws to the premier’s legal travails for the first time, Levin told the Knesset on January 16 that the indictment of Netanyahu had convinced the public of the need to reduce the powers of Israel’s judiciary.

Former justice minister MK Gideon Saar together with former attorney general Avichai Mandelblit at a conference at Bar-Ilan University organized by Saar to express opposition to the judicial overhaul proposed by the new government, January 17, 2023. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

During the last election campaign, Rothman together with Religious Zionism leader Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich proposed legislation to strike from the penal code one of the crimes Netanyahu is on trial for, fraud and breach of trust.

Netanyahu rejected the idea behind that legislation, however, and it has not been advanced as part of the current package of reforms, although Likud MK David Amsalem opined at the time that the proposal was a good idea and should be implemented.

Amsalem has since fallen out badly with Netanyahu after the latter declined Amsalem’s demands to be appointed Knesset speaker or justice minister. Earlier this week, however, Amsalem accepted Netanyahu’s offer to become a minister in the Justice Ministry, although his precise role is still unclear.

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