High Court puts temporary stay on controversial Justice Ministry director

High Court puts temporary stay on controversial Justice Ministry director

Justices will hear petition against appointment of Ophir Cohen to post, after sudden dismissal last month of Emi Palmor

Amir Ohana, appointed acting justice minister on June 5, 2019, seen at a Likud party meeting at the Menachem Begin Heritage Center in Jerusalem on March 11, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/ Flash90)
Amir Ohana, appointed acting justice minister on June 5, 2019, seen at a Likud party meeting at the Menachem Begin Heritage Center in Jerusalem on March 11, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/ Flash90)

The High Court of Justice on Sunday put a temporary freeze on the appointment of Ophir Cohen as director general of the Justice Ministry, just hours after it was approved by the Civil Service Commission.

Cohen was chosen for the position last month by Justice Minister Amir Ohana, a close friend, after the surprise firing of the ministry’s widely respected former director general, Emi Palmor.

Palmor’s dismissal drew widespread criticism and came as a shock to many in the judiciary, as there had been no warning and no public explanation for the decision.

Ohana later explained the move, saying it was accepted practice for a new minister to appoint their own director general. However, it is rare for a minister serving in a caretaker government to do so. Ohana is only expected to fill the position for several months, until the next coalition is formed after the September 17 elections.

Cohen, 43, a colonel in the IDF reserves and former infantry battalion commander, is a real estate and tax attorney who knows Ohana from their military service together. He helped found and lead a nonprofit advocacy group for the rights of reserve soldiers.

Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked (R) and Justice Ministry director general Emi Palmor at the opening of the seminar with the European Union in Jerusalem on February 20, 2017. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Critics have noted he has no managerial experience in large organizations, and almost no experience in the public sector.

Cohen’s appointment was approved by Civil Service Commissioner Daniel Hershkowitz earlier this month, and by the Civil Service Commission’s senior appointments committee earlier on Sunday. The commission accepted Ohana’s argument that he could not find a better candidate within the ministry, and that Cohen met the minimum qualifications required for the post.

With his Sunday stay order against Cohen’s appointment, Supreme Court Justice George Kara agreed to hear a petition against it by the Movement for Quality Government organization.

In a statement earlier this month, the anti-corruption watchdog called Hershkowitz’s approval of the appointment “a very precarious and dangerous decision…which creates an opening to make far-reaching moves in government ministries during a caretaker government.”

Ohana defended the appointment on Sunday, saying Cohen “is among the most worthy appointees in the entire government. This is a person who gave his best years to Israel’s security and carries the heavy cost of that sacrifice on his body. He has appropriate legal and managerial skills, as the committee for senior appointments in the Civil Service Commission has confirmed after examining his appointment closely. I hope and believe that the High Court will conclude the same.”

Justice Minister Amir Ohana at the Tel Aviv Pride Parade, June 14, 2019. (Courtesy Justice Ministry)

Ohana, a Benjamin Netanyahu loyalist, was appointed to his position after the prime minister fired Ayelet Shaked from the post ahead of September’s repeat elections.

Palmor had previously served under both the right-wing Shaked and left-leaning Tzipi Livni.

According to Channel 12, the decision to fire Palmor ran counter to the attorney general’s standing guidelines that ministers in a caretaker government cannot fire ministry directors.

However, the Kan public broadcaster reported that Ohana had been in touch with Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit for several weeks regarding his desire to replace Palmor. Mandelblit authorized the move because the director general’s departure was to be considered a resignation and not a firing, the report said.

Moreover, the attorney general reasoned that while Ohana is a minister in a transitional government with limited powers, the case was unique given that the caretaker cabinet’s tenure is twice as long as usual due to the Knesset’s unprecedented decision to dissolve itself for the second time in one year and go to elections. Israel has been led by a de facto caretaker government since the first announcement of elections in December 2018, a situation that will likely continue until the new coalition is formed, likely around the mid-November deadline for coalition talks following next month’s vote.

Newly-appointed Justice Minister Amir Ohana entertains Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a Likud gathering. (Hadas Porush/Flash90)

Ohana is a lawyer by training who became the first openly gay MK in a right-wing party when he was elected to the Knesset in 2015, and is the first openly LGBT minister in Israel’s history.

Though only in office for several weeks, Ohana has courted controversy in his short stay. He suggested in a TV interview in June that it was not always appropriate to adhere to High Court of Justice rulings — particularly when the ruling could endanger lives. The remark drew widespread criticism, including from Netanyahu.

Ohana has also sparked speculation over his reasons for firing Palmor, a move that drew criticism from many directions.

Some suggested he was attempting to influence the appointment of the next state attorney — any director general he would appoint would have a seat on the appointing committee — in order to ensure that one candidate opposed by Netanyahu, the lead prosecutor in the premier’s corruption investigations, Liat Ben-Ari, isn’t given the job.

Others pointed to Yair Netanyahu’s sharing of a Facebook post that accused Palmor of being a “leftist” just days before the firing.

Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit speaks at a farewell ceremony for Emi Palmor, the outgoing director-general of the Justice Ministry, at the Justice Ministry headquarters in Jerusalem on August 7, 2019. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

But Ohana insisted at the time that he alone made the decision.

“The accepted practice is for a minister to appoint a director general. It’s a position of trust — to do otherwise would be the anomaly,” Ohana said in a statement. “This is what governance looks like.”

He added: “In recent weeks, I’ve spoken to Emi Palmor about concluding her term, and she expressed a willingness and agreement to finish. There is no truth to the wild speculations about the decision, which was made by me and me alone.”

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