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Government to explain lack of justice minister as emergency court rules expire

Amid Netanyahu-Gantz feud, state to respond to High Court demand to justify empty cabinet posts; prisoners no longer allowed video hearings as special coronavirus edict lapses

View of the Ministry of Justice and the office of Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit on Salah al-Din street in Jerusalem, March 20, 2018. (Photo by Miriam Alster/Flash90)
View of the Ministry of Justice and the office of Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit on Salah al-Din street in Jerusalem, March 20, 2018. (Photo by Miriam Alster/Flash90)

The government was set to respond Sunday to a High Court order demanding that it explain why a number of ministerial positions remain unfilled, as emergency coronavirus court measures expired due to the lack of a justice minister.

Amid feuding between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Benny Gantz over the appointments, the High Court demanded last week an explanation from the government as to why several ministries remain empty, hinting that justices may be forced to intervene.

“The situation in which there are no permanent ministers creates a governing vacuum and the question is if a situation like this can continue,” Chief Justice Esther Hayut said during a hearing on the matter, warning of “health risks.”

There has been no justice minister since early this month after Gantz’s maximal three-month term as acting justice minister expired. Under the power-sharing agreement between Gantz and Netanyahu, the former is the only one who can select a minister. But Netanyahu has blocked a required cabinet vote to approve a candidate.

Critics have accused Netanyahu of intentionally seeking to weaken the justice system because of his ongoing corruption trial, as he hopes to appoint a minister who will be friendlier to his cause.

On Sunday, an emergency order issued by the previous justice minister, Likud’s Amir Ohana, that allowed prisoners to attend remand hearings via video call due to the coronavirus pandemic expired. Prisoners and detainees, many of whom aren’t vaccinated against COVID-19, will now have to appear in court in person.

Illustrative: A detainee appears by video link for a hearing at the Beersheba District Court on February 15, 2021. (Flash90)

According to Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit, Netanyahu was set to present a plan Sunday on how to implement the coronavirus-related court measures even without a justice minister.

Additionally, Mandelblit on Friday ordered Israel Prisons Service commissioner Katy Perry to revoke a directive not to bring Palestinian prisoners and detainees from the West Bank and Gaza to court for remand hearings, saying the measure, also introduced to tackle the coronavirus pandemic, needs the approval of a justice minister.

On Sunday, however, Perry rejected Mandeblit’s legal opinion, saying that she would continue to implement the directive, the Haaretz daily reported.

The lack of a justice minister has serious ramifications for the ability of the judicial system to function properly in some areas, including signing off on sentence reductions for inmates or extradition orders. It also affects the ability of the interim government to pass any new legislation, as government bills must first be okayed by the justice minister, who heads the Ministerial Committee for Legislation. In addition to the battle against COVID-19, this could even potentially affect urgent legislation regarding peace agreements

Last month, Gantz castigated Netanyahu for blocking the appointment and said he had written to Mandelblit to ask whether the premier should be required to step down as prime minister over the matter.

The prime minister’s move to leave Israel without a justice minister represented a “clear instance of conflict of interest,” said Gantz, intimating that Netanyahu was interfering in the state’s legal establishment for personal reasons because he is on trial.

Besides the Justice Ministry, among the other ministries that remain without ministers are the Science and Technology Ministry, the Social Equality Ministry and the Higher Education Ministry — all vacated by resigning ministers in recent months as the government collapsed.

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