In Knesset, defiant AG takes stand against hot-button coalition positions

Mandelblit defends under-fire deputy’s committee appearance, backs vetting commission decision to block new police chief and says investigations into PM conducted ‘professionally’

Raoul Wootliff is the The Times of Israel's political correspondent.

Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit attends a Knesset State Control Committee meeting on December 3, 2018. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit attends a Knesset State Control Committee meeting on December 3, 2018. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit made a determined show of defiance Monday against statements and actions of several cabinet ministers and in defense of various controversial decisions by his office and other “gatekeepers” of Israeli democracy,

In an impassioned speech in front of lawmakers, Mandelbit offered support to one of his deputies currently under fire from right-wing lawmakers following her criticism of coalition legislation, saying that he backed her disregard of an order not to appear before a key Knesset committee.

He also expressed support for the decision of a vetting committee that disqualified the government’s candidate for national police commissioner and for police conduct in corruption investigations against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

In scenes almost Monty Python-esque, Deputy Attorney General Dina Zilber appeared before a Knesset hearing on regulating the dairy industry, despite Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked’s announcement a day earlier that she would be appearing in her stead. At the same time, Mandelblit addressed a separate committee that his deputy had initially been slated to speak at.

Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked (L) attends the Knesset Economic Affairs Committee with Deputy Attorney General Dina Zilber (2R), December 3, 2018. (Knesset)

Mandelblit told the State Control Committee in no uncertain terms that Zilber was speaking as his representative, and that he fully supported her appearance.

“The person I think that should represent my position, Dina Zilber, is addressing the Economic Affairs Committee. I don’t know what Minister Shaked — whose position I don’t want to damage — will do, but it needs to be understood that Dina Zilber is there because of me,” he said.

“It’s important that she be able to express her opinion anywhere,” he added emphatically.

Zilber drew the ire of right-wing lawmakers on November 6, when she slammed the so-called “Loyalty in Culture” bill during a meeting of the Knesset Education, Culture and Sports Committee. She said the legislation, which threatens to strip state funding from cultural institutions that produce art seen as overly critical of the government or the state, “poses real difficulties.”

The bill has since been put on hold after it failed to win enough support in the Knesset to come up for a final vote into law. Had it passed, it would have transferred the authority to cut culture funding from the Finance Ministry to the Culture Ministry, headed by firebrand minister Miri Regev.

Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit, left, and Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked at a ceremony in Jerusalem, June 13, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Shaked had slammed Zilber’s comments as unprofessional, saying in a complaint letter to Zilber’s boss, Mandelblit, that it was “clear that she does not wish to act professionally and honestly as a legal adviser.” She suggested Zilber would be a better fit as a candidate for political office, but had “crossed every line” as a public servant and should be removed from her post.

After temporarily suspending Zilber’s Knesset appearances and holding a disciplinary inquiry into her comments, Mandelblit announced he would not fire his deputy, but sent her a letter chastising her behavior, and said the politically loaded terminology she had used had harmed the Attorney General’s Office.

Shaked hit back at Mandelblit’s decision and insisted she would not allow Zilber to participate in Knesset committee meetings as a representative of the Justice Ministry’s position during the current parliamentary session, which is scheduled to last until March.

Later, Knesset legal adviser Eyal Yinon informed Knesset committee chairs that they did not have the authority to deny Zilber access if she was sent by Mandelblit to represent him.

That left Shaked with no alternative means of denying Zilber access to Knesset committees except to take on those committee appearances herself, as the most senior official in the Justice Ministry.

One floor down from Mandelblit, sitting just three seats over from Zilber in the Economic Affairs Committee on Monday, Shaked fought back opposition lawmakers who objected to her decision to undercut Mandelblit’s deputy by serving as the government’s legal representative in the session.

Deputy Attorney General Dina Zilber speaks during a meeting of the Knesset Education, Culture and Sports Committee on November 6, 2018. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

“You are not supposed to quarrel here with Deputy (Attorney General) Dina Zilber, she is expressing the opinion of the attorney general,” chided Zionist Union MK Revital Swid.

“I will express his position. I spoke with him,” Shaked replied in a remark inconsistent with the comments Mandelblit made moments before at the State Control Committee.

Unconvinced, Swid further rapped the justice minister for “stooping to such a level.”

Shaked replied that she had no issue “stooping,” adding that it is “a great honor to represent the government’s position.”

Coalition whip David Amsalem (Likud), who was also present at the session, interjected in support of Shaked, at which point committee chairman Eitan Cabel (Zionist Union) called all of the parties to order.

“Whoever interferes with this discussion will simply [leave and] watch it on the Knesset Channel,” Cabel said.

In a statement to the press on Sunday, Shaked’s office said that Zilber “would not appear in Knesset committees during the winter session” of the parliament.

Back in the State Control Committee, in a second clear divergence from government positions, Mandelblit told the committee that he also backed the decision of a vetting committee that disqualified the government’s candidate for police commissioner, drawing calls from ministers to override it.

Moshe Edri, director general of the Ministry of Public Security, at a press conference launching the new National Headquarters for the Protection of Children Online, at the Ministry of Public Security in Jerusalem on November 19, 2018. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The Senior Appointments Advisory Committee, also known as the Goldberg Committee, announced on Friday that it could not recommend Maj. Gen. Moshe “Chico” Edri as the next commissioner, citing a meeting he held during the nomination process with the lawyer of a Tax Authority whistleblower who has accused Edri of harassing him.

The calls to ignore the recommendation grew amid criticism of the committee chairman, retired Supreme Court judge Eliezer Goldberg, for alleging that Edri had failed a lie-detector test taken during the vetting process — contradicting other committee members — a claim he quickly walked back.

Mandelblit told the State Control Committee that he would not advocate ignoring the recommendation.

“It’s good that we have the Goldberg Committee and it’s important that it remain,” he said. “The Supreme Court has ruled that it is extremely rare to overturn a decision of the committee.”

Addressing the debate, called to discuss the status of Israeli government “gatekeepers” such as legal advisers and law enforcement authorities, Mandeblit also gave his backing to police conduct in corruption investigations against Netanyahu.

“I support the police and give them all my backing; I think that everything they did was done professionally,” he said of Sunday’s announcement by police that they believed there was enough evidence to bring Netanyahu to trial on charges of accepting bribes, fraud and breach of trust, and fraudulently accepting benefits. It is the third case in which police have recommended bribery charges against the prime minister. They also recommended that his wife, Sara, stand trial in the case.

On Sunday night, Netanyahu attacked his investigators and and accused the outgoing police commissioner of leading a smear campaign against him.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during a Likud event in Kfar Maccabiah, Ramat Gan on December 2, 2018. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Mandelblit rejected those sentiments, but stressed that his support of police does not mean he automatically backs the recommendations.

“In these types of cases, as far as I am concerned, the police recommendations are police recommendations, and not the position of the prosecution,” Mandelblit said.

The recommendations in Case 4000 now go to the Attorney General’s Office, where they will first be reviewed by the state prosecutor before going to the attorney general.

Mandelblit, who will make the final decision whether to indict the prime minister, intends to examine all three cases at the same time, which will be possible only after he receives the state attorney’s recommendations based on the final police reports. That process makes late 2019 the likely timing for any final word on whether Netanyahu will face trial.

The next Knesset elections are currently slated for November 2019, but may very well be held earlier.

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