High Court lifts cap on protests at AG’s house over Netanyahu graft probes

Justices decline to limit number of protesters at weekly demonstrations, say they don’t need police permit

Sue Surkes is The Times of Israel's environment reporter

Menny Naftali (C), the former housekeeper of Prime Minister's Residence, and Israeli activist Eldad Yaniv (2R) outside the courtroom of the High Court in Jerusalem, August 24, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Menny Naftali (C), the former housekeeper of Prime Minister's Residence, and Israeli activist Eldad Yaniv (2R) outside the courtroom of the High Court in Jerusalem, August 24, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The High Court of Justice ruled Sunday that ongoing weekly demonstrations held outside the attorney general’s home over the handling of corruption probes into Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu do not require a police permit and can go ahead with no limitations on the number of participants.

The incoming Supreme Court president, Justice Esther Hayut, ruled that criticism of the state and public figures was “the lifeblood of democracy” and that no one was immune from criticism, including judges and the attorney general.

For this reason, the weekly demonstrations on Saturday nights were about “the right to freedom of expression, which is at the heart of fundamental freedoms in a democratic state,” she said.

The court praised the office of the attorney general as an important pillar of the law enforcement system. It said preserving the office’s independence was crucial to safeguarding Israel’s democracy, but that did not place it above criticism.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, speaks with his former cabinet secretary Avichai Mandelblit, right, now the attorney general, during the weekly government conference in Jerusalem, on December 20, 2015. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The demonstrations, that allege stalling by Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit in the corruption probes, have been held in the coastal city of Petah Tikva since last November, originally attracting small numbers of protesters but swelling to more than 2,000 in recent months.

In April, the High Court of Justice ruled that while the protests should not be used to exert improper pressure on public servants by harassing them in their private residences, it could not prevent the demonstrations, which are an “important and central component of any democratic society,”

In August, police tried to block the protests, which had grown to 2,000 people, and arrested two of the organizers — leaders Menny Naftali, a former caretaker of the Prime Minister’s Residence, and Eldad Yaniv, an anti-corruption lawyer and Labor Party activist —  as they tried to make their way to the planned site of the demonstration.

After that, the High Court issued a temporary injunction allowing the demonstrations to continue until further notice, without police approval, but said they should not exceed 500 people and that any additional protesters must gather in a nearby park.

Coalition Chairman David Bitan (Likud) speaks at a press conference in Tel Aviv on June 22, 2017. (Flash90)

Likud coalition chairman David Bitan has called the protesters “tyrants of the left” who want to “carry out a coup, not through elections.”

Netanyahu has described the weekly events as part of an undemocratic effort to topple him “at any cost” slamming the “fake news industry” for covering “enthusiastically [and] without end the left-wing protests every week…whose goal is to apply improper pressure in order that an indictment will be filed at any cost.

“They don’t only despise us,” he said. “They despise something much deeper: They despise the choice of the people and they despise the democracy in whose name they protest.”

Counter-demonstrations by right-wing supporters are also now being held in the central Israel city.

In Sunday’s ruling, Judge Hayat did allow police to take measures ensuring that the protests did not offend the religious sensibilities of Sabbath-observant neighborhood residents and allowed for the possibility of reviewing hte matter should circumstances change.

Portrait of the Jerusalem Supreme Court Judge, Esther Hayut, on May 10, 2017. On September 5, 2017,Judge Hayut was chosen to be the next President of the Supreme Court, to replace Miriam Naor. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Yuval Yoaz and Doron Barkat, lawyers who represented some of the demonstrators, said they hoped the authorities would respect the right to demonstrate and would not try to impose limits, even if the subject of the protests was not to their liking.

The chairman of the Zionist Union faction in the Knesset, MK Yoel Hasson, said the decision proved “that there are judges in Jerusalem. There is a right to demonstrate and it stands above any private right,” he said.

He called on the demonstrators to remember that the fight was against the government and was not a personal fight against any specific public official.

Naftali welcomed the High Court ruling and pledged to continue the protests, saying six buses would be bringing protesters to the next demonstration from all over the country.

Menachem Moskowitz, a lawyer representing the attorney general’s neighbors, said he regretted that the court had “decided to ignore the residents’ distress.”

The petition was submitted by the Movement for Quality Government in Israel, Naftali, and two others against five defendants, among them the Israel Police and the Petah Tikva Municipality.

Demonstrators have been calling on the attorney general to act in corruption scandals involving Netanyahu. In the so-called Case 1000, Netanyahu and his wife Sara are suspected of receiving illicit gifts from billionaire benefactors, most notably hundreds of thousands of shekels’ worth of cigars and champagne from the Israeli-born Hollywood producer Arnon Milchan.

Case 2000 involves a suspected illicit quid pro quo deal between Netanyahu and Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper publisher Arnon “Noni” Mozes that would have seen the prime minister weaken a rival daily, the Sheldon Adelson-backed Israel Hayom, in return for more favorable coverage from Yedioth.

Netanyahu has denied wrongdoing in both cases.

In addition, Netanyahu’s wife Sara is expected to be charged with fraud on suspicion of having diverted some NIS 400,000 ($112,000) in public funds for her private housekeeping expenses.

The attorney general and state prosecutor have denied stalling, saying the investigations simply take a long time to complete.

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