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High Court to Netanyahu, Gantz: Explain by Sunday why still no justice minister

With several key posts unfilled because of Netanyahu-Gantz feuding, Chief Justice Hayut warns of a ‘governing vacuum’

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (right), Blue and White leader Benny Gantz and Chief Justice of the Supreme Court Esther Hayut at the memorial ceremony for the late President Shimon Peres, at the Mount Herzl cemetery in Jerusalem, on September 19, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (right), Blue and White leader Benny Gantz and Chief Justice of the Supreme Court Esther Hayut at the memorial ceremony for the late President Shimon Peres, at the Mount Herzl cemetery in Jerusalem, on September 19, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The High Court of Justice on Thursday ordered the government to explain by Sunday why a number of ministerial positions, including the key post of justice minister, remain unfilled, amid feuding between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Benny Gantz.

“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.

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.

Netanyahu and Gantz were told to respond to the court by Sunday, when a further hearing is expected to be held.

There has been no justice minister since early this month after Gantz’s maximal 3-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 such a candidate.

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

With the country lacking a justice minister, Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit issued a legal opinion last week saying the high-level security and coronavirus cabinets cannot hold votes.

The week before that, Mandelblit warned of “far-reaching consequences” if a justice minister is not appointed, including that starting April 21, thousands of detainees and prisoners have to be physically brought to court for arrest and remand hearings, as video conferences aren’t allowed. Since many detainees and prisoners aren’t vaccinated against COVID-19, bringing them to court could pose a health risk.

Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit speaks at the 17th annual Jerusalem Conference of the ‘Besheva’ group, on February 24, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/ Flash90)

The High Court was critical of the lack of resolution to the matter of prisoners, with Justice Uzi Fogelman calling for the situation to be swiftly amended, while Hayut and Justice Neil Hendel warned of the health risks.

The ruling was issued in response to a petition filed by the Movement for Quality Government in Israel, which cheered the decision.

“Today we took another step toward the abyss, when the Supreme Court is forced to intervene in the appointment of ministers because a criminal defendant is doing everything to escape justice,” the group said in a statement.

It added: “Israel is paralyzed. The cabinet does not meet, public health is harmed, human and civil rights are harmed, and still, the government and its leader refuse to fulfill their basic obligation to appoint ministers.”

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. This could even potentially affect urgent legislation regarding peace agreements and the battle against COVID-19.

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

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 decision.

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.

On Monday, Mandelblit told the High Court he does not support a petition demanding Netanyahu be removed from his position amid his ongoing criminal charges. The court rejected that petition in a separate ruling on Thursday, saying “there is no reason for our intervention at this time.”

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