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In jab at Netanyahu, attorney general warns rule of law in Israel slipping away

Avichai Mandelblit also appears to denounce Justice Minister Sa’ar’s proposal to split up post of attorney general as ‘dangerous to Israeli democracy’

Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit attends a conference in Tel Aviv, on June 29, 2021. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)
Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit attends a conference in Tel Aviv, on June 29, 2021. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit issued a chilling warning that Israel’s tradition of faithful governance was at serious risk of being lost to personal politicals, seemingly taking a swipe at ex-prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Speaking at a conference at the University of Haifa, Israel’s top appointed judicial official also appeared to strongly denounce Justice Minister Gideon Sa’ar’s proposal to split up the post of attorney general, which he said would harm democracy.

Mandelblit told attendees that Israel was “dangerously close” to moving from a political system concerned with governance to one in which personal loyalty was paramount, which he argued was “in complete contradiction to the principle of loyalty to the public.”

“Over the past few years the threat against the ability of the attorney general’s office to maintain the rule of law has been tangible and real,” Mandelblit said. “A battle has taken place for the State of Israel’s character as a country ruled by law.”

The outgoing attorney general was a target of vociferous attacks from Netanyahu and his allies after he filed charges against the then-premier in a trio of graft cases.

The ex-prime minister has been accused of using his post as a soapbox for launching tirades against judicial officials and others, weakening public trust in state institutions.

“Happily, alongside the legal authorities stood many good people who opposed harm to the rule of law,” Mandelblit added, without naming anyone.

Mandelblit has backed a bid by Sa’ar to pass legislation that would prevent a politician accused of serious crimes from being able to form a government, though both insist the law is not targeted at Netanyahu.

Then-prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu (left) speaks with then-cabinet secretary Avichai Mandelblit during the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem, on September 21, 2014. (AP/Menahem Kahana, Pool/File)

Netanyahu, who is now opposition leader, denies wrongdoing in the cases against him.

Sa’ar, who also spoke at the conference, said Netanyahu’s attacks were continuing to erode public trust.

“What begin as a campaign of delegitimization of the law enforcement and court system is continuing as a campaign to delegitimize the elected government and tomorrow will turn into a campaign to delegitimize the Knesset,” said Sa’ar, a former member of Netanyahu’s Likud party.

The justice minister also defended his proposal to prevent prime ministers from serving more than eight years in total. The bill is not retroactive and therefore would not prevent Netanyahu from again becoming premier after having served over a decade already.

Sa’ar said the bill would “guide public officials to a place where the focus of their thoughts is what to do for the public and not to a place of infinite personal survival.”

Split decision

In his remarks, Mandelblit also appeared to aim criticism at Sa’ar for a separate push to no longer have the attorney general serve as both chief state prosecutor and government legal adviser, describing it as an effort to weaken his post.

“I believe that the approach of trying to weaken the position of the attorney general and its authorities, on the idle pretext of supposedly advancing governance is dangerous to Israeli democracy,” he said.

Mandelblit did not explicitly name Sa’ar or the justice minister’s proposal, which the attorney general has previously indicated he opposes.

Sa’ar did not address his intended plans for the attorney general post in his remarks.

Justice Minister Gideon Sa’ar leads a New Hope faction meeting at the Knesset, on October 25, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Currently, the attorney general serves both as legal adviser to the government and as the state’s chief prosecutor, meaning he can find himself tasked with overseeing the prosecution of members of the government whose moves he is also charged with defending — a situation conservative critics have argued creates a conflict of interest.

Sa’ar’s plan calls for one person to serve as the government’s legal adviser and another as chief state prosecutor.

Previous attempts to split the role were widely seen as moves motivated by political or personal interests, since they typically came from governments whose prime ministers were facing criminal indictment — including Ehud Olmert in 2007-2008, and Netanyahu several years ago.

Mandelblit’s six-year term as attorney general is set to end in February. Former Supreme Court justice Asher Grunis was tapped last week to head a search committee for finding Mandelblit’s replacement.

Grunis, who was selected by Supreme Court Chief Justice Esther Hayut, was made aware of Sa’ar’s intention to split up the post of attorney general once Mandelblit retires, according to the Ynet news site.

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