ISRAEL AT WAR - DAY 142

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Justice minister accuses AG, Supreme Court chief of leading ‘coup’ attempt

‘No different from a putsch with tanks’: Levin assails legal officials for requiring Netanyahu to respond to petition to declare him unfit because of alleged conflict of interest

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, with Justice Minister Yariv Levin at his side, chairs the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem, Feb. 12, 2023. (Amit Shabi / Pool)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, with Justice Minister Yariv Levin at his side, chairs the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem, Feb. 12, 2023. (Amit Shabi / Pool)

Justice Minister Yariv Levin on Sunday accused Attorney General Gali Baharav-Miara and Supreme Court chief Esther Hayut of seeking to “carry out a coup” against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

In a statement, Levin assailed a petition to the High Court that sought to force Netanyahu to take a leave of absence. The petition, filed last week by a good-governance watchdog group, argued that Netanyahu — in seeking to enact sweeping judicial changes — is in violation of a conflict of interest arrangement that bars him from involvement in matters that could impact his ongoing corruption trial.

“An attempt to oust a prime minister against the law, while trampling on democratic choice, is no different from a putsch carried out with tanks,” claimed Levin.

“The intention is the same intention, and the result is the same result. We will not allow this attempted coup, which illustrates how badly the judicial system needs reform — a reform that will restore democracy and the checks and balances between the government authorities,” he said.

“This is a group of lawyers who do not respect the results of the election and are now working to carry out a coup and declare Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu unfit,” Levin said.

“It’s no wonder that the partners to this move are the same ones who are leading the opposition to the legal reform: the left-wing organization known as the Movement for Quality Government, the attorney general and the Supreme Court justice,” Levin said, in reference to Baharav-Miara and Hayut.

Benjamin Netanyahu arrives for a court hearing in his trial, at the District Court in Jerusalem on May 17, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Eliad Shraga, founder of the Movement for Quality Government, which filed the petition to oust Netanyahu, pushed back against Levin’s claim that his organization was left-wing, saying that he would be willing to test it in court.

“The Movement for Quality Government is a movement that works to preserve the rule of law, from the left and the right,” Shraga said in a statement. “The unfounded accusation that it is a left-wing organization does not hold water. I call on Minister Levin to apologize for his words, or alternatively to drop his [parliamentary] immunity, and we will check if his words stand up to legal scrutiny.”

Coalition leaders on Saturday railed at the High Court of Justice for hearing the petition, claiming that the court even deliberating such a possibility was tantamount to a military coup.

The petition cited contentious legislation Netanyahu’s new hardline government is advancing that would drastically curb the High Court’s ability to strike down laws, and would give politicians full control over the appointment of judges.

The court on Friday said Netanyahu and Baharav-Miara would have to present their arguments by March 12.

Attorney General Gali Baharav-Miara at her inauguration ceremony in Jerusalem on February 8, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Recent reports in Hebrew media claimed Baharav-Miara was looking into the possibility of ordering Netanyahu to step down for violations of the conflict of interest agreement, in light of his public remarks backing the judicial overhaul and alleged actions to advance it. Those reports were denied by the attorney general’s office.

The Movement for Quality Government said in a statement that the premier “has proven that he is incapable of separating between his legal matters and the management of the country, and is trying to destroy democracy.”

Under the 2020 conflict of interest agreement, drawn up by then-attorney general Avichai Mandelblit to enable Netanyahu to stay on as prime minister even while on trial, Netanyahu cannot be involved in any matters that affect witnesses or other defendants in the trial, or in legislation that would impact the legal proceedings against him.

Then-prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu (left) and then-newly appointed cabinet secretary Avichai Mandelblit attend the weekly cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem on June 9, 2013. (Marc Israel Sellem/POOL/FLASH90)

He also cannot intervene in any issues related to the status of several top police and prosecution officials, in several fields under the responsibility of the Communications Ministry, or in the Judicial Selection Committee, which appoints judges to the Jerusalem District Court — where his trial is being conducted — and to the Supreme Court, which would hear any appeals in the case.

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.

In its petition, the Movement for Quality Government acknowledged that the court has ruled against taking such a drastic step in the past. However, given the sweeping proposals the government is now advancing to significantly curb the power of the judiciary, the need for Netanyahu to take a leave of absence has become more urgent, it asserted.

The petition also took issue with Netanyahu’s recent decision to appoint Likud MK David Amsalem to the position of junior minister within the Justice Ministry, asking the court to freeze the move immediately.

Eliad Shraga, center, a lawyer and founder of the Movement for the Quality of Government, arrives for a court hearing at the Supreme Court in Jerusalem, on October 6, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The Movement for Quality Government pointed out that Netanyahu recently met with Amsalem to discuss the planned judicial overhaul, which the group said also amounts to a violation of the premier’s conflict of interest arrangement.

In an interview broadcast Thursday, Mandelblit warned the judicial reform was tantamount to “regime change” and would destroy the legal system.

He also accused 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’s coalition has prioritized the dramatic judicial restructuring that would increase government control over the judiciary.

According to a poll aired by Channel 12 news on Friday, just one in four Israelis support the government moving forward with the proposed overhaul legislation in its current form.

Critics say that along with other planned legislation, the sweeping reforms will impact Israel’s democratic character by upsetting its system of checks and balances, granting almost all power to the executive branch, and leaving individual rights unprotected and minorities undefended. Netanyahu has pushed back against the criticism.

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