The High Court of Justice on Monday ordered a temporary freeze to the activities of a committee formed to probe the police internal affairs unit, whose establishment by the cabinet was opposed by Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit.
Justices Hanan Melcer, David Mintz and Yitzhak Amit gave the government 60 days to explain why the committee should not be disbanded, given Mandeblit’s opposition.
As a result, the committee will not operate before the coming March 2 elections. In a letter last week to the court, Mandelblit had asked that the committee be stopped and expressed concern that its formation earlier this month was politically motivated and related to the elections.
Justice Minister Amir Ohana responded angrily to Monday’s decision, saying the court “banded together with the attorney general, whose opinion on the matter was given under a conflict of interest.”
Ohana was apparently referring to the fact that the Police Internal Investigations Department is a division within the Justice Ministry, while Mandelblit is a top official in the justice system.
“There is a serious problem of trust in the PIID… the public deserves a PIID in which it can place its trust,” Ohana said. “That is why I wanted to form an inquiry committee to provide the next government with findings.”
In their decision the judges questioned why the government was in such a hurry to set up the committee despite the opinion of the attorney general.
“The government took the attorney-general’s opinion and threw it in the bin,” Amit said. “How many times has that happened in the history of the state? It is hard to think of cases.”
The establishment of the committee to probe the PIID had been a key demand of former Blue and White MK Gadi Yevarkan, who jumped ship to Likud just hours before the deadline for registering party slates on January 15.
It was brought to the cabinet by Ohana, a Likud member and ally of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has been accusing law enforcement officials of seeking to stage a “coup” by indicting him for alleged corruption.
Mandelblit had said the move could amount to “election bribery,” a crime under article 122 of the Elections Law, which prohibits offering direct benefits to individuals to affect their vote or to influence them to influence others.
Two petitions have been filed against the committee. The government had responded to the petitions, saying it is not obligated to act in accordance with the attorney general’s opinion.
Last Friday Mandelblit wrote to the court and noted that the cabinet was seeking to crate the panel shortly before the March 2 general elections.
“The decision to establish the investigative committee only three weeks before the date of the elections raises a very real concern that the current timing of the decision was motivated by outside considerations that relate to running in the upcoming elections,” his letter said.
Mandelblit said the court should order an injunction to halt the committee’s work, arguing that the High Court was likely to accept the appeals and that the panel’s establishment was not urgent.
Likud sought to woo Yevarkan, a member of the Ethiopian Jewish community, in order to stump for votes from Ethiopian Jews, who had turned their backs on the ruling party in last year’s elections following a series of high-profile incidents of police violence and amid ongoing concerns over government neglect and discrimination toward the community.
Yevarkan demanded an investigation into the internal investigations department over what many Ethiopian Israelis say is its overly lenient handling of cases of police violence toward Ethiopian Israelis.
Prosecutors believe the committee will not be asked to investigate cases of police clashes with Ethiopian Israelis, however, but rather to launch an inquiry into Netanyahu’s claims that the corruption indictment against him is part of an “attempted coup” by the police and state prosecution, a claim that has become central to Likud’s election campaign ahead of the March 2 vote.
While Mandelblit has not opposed the establishment of the committee in principle, he has warned that doing so under an interim, unelected government ahead of elections may be illegal.
Two previous elections failed to break the political deadlock, leaving Israel without a permanent government and resulting in a third vote within a year.
Last month, Mandelblit filed an indictment against Netanyahu for fraud and breach of trust in all three cases against him, as well as bribery in one of the cases. The prime minister denies any wrongdoing.