In deepening divide, 'somebody will pay the price in blood'

Judicial overhaul plan is ‘regime change,’ will destroy legal system, says former AG

Avichai Mandelblit, former close confidant of Netanyahu who served as his attorney general, says proposed legal changes are introduced to help PM bring trial to improper end

Jeremy Sharon is The Times of Israel’s legal affairs and settlements reporter

Former attorney general Avicahi Mandelblit speaks to Channel 12's 'Uvda,' in a program aired February 9, 2023. (Video screenshot)
Former attorney general Avicahi Mandelblit speaks to Channel 12's 'Uvda,' in a program aired February 9, 2023. (Video screenshot)

Former attorney general Avichai Mandelblit has described the government’s proposed sweeping and drastic overhaul of the legal and judicial system as “regime change” that would “eliminate the independence of Israel’s legal system from end to end.”

Mandelblit also accused Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of advancing the overhaul in order to bring his ongoing criminal trial to a premature end and insisted that he had been right to indict the premier despite the political instability that ensued.

Netanyahu is on trial in three corruption cases where he faces charges of fraud and breach of trust in two cases, and bribery, fraud, and breach of trust in the third. He denies wrongdoing and says the charges were fabricated in a political coup led by the police and state prosecution.

Speaking in an interview with Channel 12’s Uvda program broadcast on Thursday night, Mandelblit discussed the effect the proposed legal shake-up would have on civil rights in Israel, as well as Netanyahu’s reaction following his indictment and the fallout from that behavior.

Mandelblit was once a close confidant of Netanyahu and served as his cabinet secretary from 2013-2016 before being appointed attorney general. The police began investigating corruption allegations against Netanyahu in 2016, and Mandelblit indicted him in November 2019. It marked the first time an attorney general has indicted a sitting prime minister.

Mandelblit said in the interview aired Thursday that the legal overhaul was “not reform.”

“It’s a revolution, regime change. It’s a complete change of the DNA upon which we grew up, and the upshot is the elimination of the independence of the legal system from end to end,” Mandelblit said.

The bitter divide over the planned overhaul will lead to violence, he warned. Neither side will give way, he said, “and somebody or some people will pay the price in blood. That’s what will happen.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, speaks with then-cabinet secretary Avichai Mandelblit, later attorney general, during a cabinet meeting in Jerusalem, September 21, 2014. (AP/Menahem Kahana)

“There will be ‘our people’,” he said of the nature of appointments to the legal system should the government’s reform package be passed.

“There will be ‘people who we appoint.’ They will have personal loyalty to the ruler, personal loyalty to the minister, not to the state. That is the most dangerous thing that can happen. That is not democracy,” he continued.

“There is no democracy without human rights. The human rights of a minority that is not viewed favorably by the regime will be badly harmed. There will be repression, that is where it will get to,” he warned.

The former attorney general asserted that in a situation in which the senior officials of the legal system are appointed by the government and have personal loyalty to it “then the law has no supremacy, and if there is no supremacy to the law the fortress falls.”

Mandelblit also rejected Netanyahu’s claims that he and his party had stated clearly in the election campaign that they intended to carry out such a radical overhaul of the legal and judicial system.

“The elections were not about this. No one said they were going to change the values of the Declaration of Independence during the election campaign… If the legal system is not independent then it’s a different form of government, it’s a different type of regime; no one went to the elections over this, no one said anything like it,” he continued.

Former justice minister MK Gideon Saar together with former attorney general Avichai Mandelblit at a conference at Bar-Ilan University. January 17, 2023. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

“If you want to improve the legal system, then fine, improve it. But this is not improving it, this is destroying it.”

Mandelblit also claimed that the timing of the planned judicial shake-up, combined with Netanyahu’s previous position on the judiciary, indicated that the corruption trial was a key motivating factor for the prime minister.

“The Netanyahu that I knew was for certain a defender of the legal system, it came from an inner place,” he said.

“There is one thing that everyone should ask, because it’s nothing new that these [judicial overhaul proposals] are the position of Yariv Levin,” he said. “The question everyone needs to ask is why was he [Levin] appointed to the position [of justice minister] now? My estimation and opinion is that Netanyahu wants to bring about a situation in which his trial does not come to an end in a proper manner.”

As presented by Levin, the coalition’s proposals would severely restrict the High Court’s capacity to strike down laws and government decisions, with an “override clause” enabling the Knesset to re-legislate struck-down laws with a bare majority of 61; give the government complete control over the selection of judges; prevent the court from using a test of “reasonableness” to judge legislation and government decisions; and allow ministers to appoint their own legal advisers, instead of getting counsel from advisers operating under the aegis of the Justice Ministry.

A first reading of some of the proposals is set for Monday, February 13; a bill must pass three readings to become law, and the coalition has indicated it seeks to blitz the legislation through the Knesset by April.

Mandelblit insisted that he had been right to indict Netanyahu, becoming the first attorney general to indict a sitting prime minister, despite the political instability his decision wrought. “The state is more important than any individual, there would be no Israeli democracy without that indictment,” he said.

Then-Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit holds a press conference at the Ministry of Justice in Jerusalem, announcing his decision to indict Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for bribery, fraud and breach of trust. November 21, 2019. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

The former attorney general also addressed left-wing criticism that he dragged his feet when deciding whether or not to indict Netanyahu, from the date the police recommended the prime minister be indicted in February 2018 to the time Mandeblit announced he would be doing so in November 2019.

“I work only on the basis of evidence, the public interest, and the law. Did people want me to file an indictment that had no evidence?” he demanded.

Mandelblit strongly criticized Netanyahu over the speech he gave inside the Jerusalem District Court building when his trial began in May 2020, in which he accused the police, the state prosecution and the media of colluding in order to topple him from power.

“This was something awful,” said Mandelblit. “You don’t enter a court and make claims like this from inside the court. This will really be remembered as an eternal disgrace.”

Then-prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, surrounded by Likud lawmakers, gives a televised statement before the start of his corruption trial at the Jerusalem District Court on May 24, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

He also argued that the government’s reported intention to split the attorney general’s role into a chief government legal adviser and a chief prosecutor would undermine the independence of that chief prosecutor and further damage Israeli democracy.

Asked if a chief prosecutor in such a mold could cancel the indictment against Netanyahu, Mandelblit replied that it was certainly a possibility.

“There are these so-called democracies. They are not democracies. These kinds of countries have no corruption at all. No one from the executive branch is put on trial, no one, it doesn’t happen. And so there is no corruption there at all,” said Mandelblit.

“The majority of the world is like this, that’s the truth. We are not like that and it is not our weakness, it is our strength,” he said.

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