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Gantz: PM is immersed up to his neck in conflict of interest

High Court bars Netanyahu from appointing top law enforcement, justice officials

Judges say PM must abide by attorney general’s opinion barring him from involvement in filling roles that may have bearing on his criminal cases; ruling doesn’t apply to ally Ohana

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu arrives for a court hearing at the District Court in Jerusalem on February 8, 2021. Netanyahu is charged with fraud and breach of trust in three cases and bribery in one of them. (Reuven Kastro/POOL)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu arrives for a court hearing at the District Court in Jerusalem on February 8, 2021. Netanyahu is charged with fraud and breach of trust in three cases and bribery in one of them. (Reuven Kastro/POOL)

The High Court of Justice ruled on Thursday that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu must abide by conflict of interest rules laid out by Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit and cannot intervene in the appointment of senior law enforcement and justice officials.

Netanyahu has previously said he is not bound by the opinion drawn up by Mandelblit, which clips his wings on appointments of officials due to his criminal trial.

“The reality in which a prime minister is serving while an indictment is pending against him for serious offenses in the area of ​​personal integrity is an exceptional situation that requires extreme adherence to the principle of prohibiting a person in public office from being in a situation of conflict of interest,” the court said in its ruling.

However, the court rejected the contention of the petitioner, the Movement for Quality Government group, that the restrictions should also be imposed on Netanyahu’s surrogate, Public Security Minister Amir Ohana, noting that a conflict of interest agreement is a personal arrangement made for a specific person — in this case, the prime minister.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Public Security Minister Amir Ohana in Tel Aviv, on December 01, 2020 (Miriam Alster/FLASH90)

The court said that the minister, and any others involved in the decisions, should refrain from communicating with the prime minister on the matter.

Ohana is a key ally of Netanayahu. Prior to his appointment last year, law enforcement and police officials expressed concerns he could act with the prime minister’s interests in mind.

Responding to the ruling, Justice Minister Benny Gantz said that Netanyahu was “immersed up to his neck in conflict of interest,” and called for the prime minister’s ouster in the wake of Tuesday’s elections.

Defense Minister Benny Gantz speaks at the annual Jerusalem Conference of the ‘Besheva’ group in Jerusalem, on March 14, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

“[Netanyahu’s] refusal to appoint a permanent state attorney and permanent justice minister proves how problematic his tenure as prime minister is. I very much hope that all the parties to the [anti-Netanyahu] bloc will understand this, and unite in an effort to replace him,” Gantz said.

Under Mandelblit’s arrangement, Netanyahu cannot be involved in any matters that affect witnesses or other defendants in his trial, or in legislation that would impact the legal proceedings against him.

He cannot intervene in matters related to the status of several top police and prosecution officials, in several fields under the responsibility of the Communications Ministry, or in the Judicial Appointments Committee, which appoints judges to the Jerusalem District Court — where his trial is being conducted — and to the Supreme Court, which would hear any appeals in the case.

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

The petition to the court had revolved around the appointment of Amit Isman as state prosecutor by then-justice minister Avi Nissenkorn, which had been opposed by Ohana, who was acting as a stand-in for Netanyahu and refusing to bring the appointment up for a vote.

Mandelblit insisted the conflict of interest arrangement he drew up did not require the approval of the premier, who has been battling with the attorney general for years and demanding the right to be involved in the appointment of the attorney general’s successor and other top legal officials.

In a letter to the court last year, Mandelblit said that the legal framework for the arrangement was not a recommendation or dependent on Netanyahu’s “good will.” He asked the court to intervene if the prime minister refuses to adhere to the agreement.

Netanyahu’s lawyers have argued that the attorney general does not have the authority to enforce the conflict of interest arrangement without the consent of the prime minister.

Netanyahu in August rejected an earlier draft of the conflict of interest framework proposed by Mandelblit, claiming that the attorney general himself was in a conflict of interest, since he was the one who made the decision late last year to indict the prime minister.

Netanyahu faces charges of fraud and breach of trust in three cases, as well as bribery in one of them. He has denied wrongdoing and claimed that the charges are an effort by political rivals, the media, law enforcement, and prosecutors to remove him from office.

The evidentiary stage of the trial is set to start on April 5, having been postponed until after the elections.

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