Justice minister warns at AG’s farewell: Threat to Israeli democracy is not yet over

Mandelblit says office faced ‘unprecedented challenges’ in his term; PM, FM back Baharav-Miara to succeed him; candidate selection process under fire for alleged politicization

Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit (left) with Gideon Sa'ar at a ceremony in Jerusalem, on June 14, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)
Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit (left) with Gideon Sa'ar at a ceremony in Jerusalem, on June 14, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Justice Minister Gideon Sa’ar said Tuesday at a farewell ceremony for Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit that the law enforcement system has faced an “unprecedented attack,” and that the danger to Israeli democracy has not yet passed.

“You knew how to absorb attacks without absolving yourself of responsibility and blaming others,” Sa’ar said to Mandelblit. “Recently, you have felt anxiety about the future of democracy in Israel. We have moved away from the abyss, but the danger has not passed.”

“You have fulfilled the role responsibly, wisely, in a statesmanlike way and with humanity. The law enforcement system faced an unprecedented attack — you took most of the fire, yet you stood up for your professional truth,” Sa’ar said.

Mandelblit faced criticism from across the spectrum during his six-year term, mainly in connection with the probe and subsequent corruption trial of former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Since Mandelblit pressed charges in three cases in which the ex-premier is currently on trial, he has faced a relentless barrage of accusations from Netanyahu and his supporters on the right claiming the charges were a conspiracy by police, the justice system and a left-leaning media aiming to see the prime minister replaced. At the start of the probe, he had been assailed by voices from the left who accused him of dragging his feet. In recent weeks, further controversy has erupted over his uncompleted negotiations with Netanyahu over a plea bargain.

Mandelblit told the gathering on Tuesday that his office faced “unprecedented challenges” during his term.

Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit speaks at a ceremony at the Justice Ministry in Jerusalem marking his departure after six years in the role, February 1, 2022 (Youtube screenshot)

“We worked to preserve the status of the attorney general. We faced unprecedented challenges. I am grateful to each and every one of the people in the office,” he said.

Then-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, Pool/File)

Mandelblit also told an anecdote about leadership, which he said he had heard from a military commander he served under.

“When you are a company commander, you look back and see the platoon commanders, look ahead and see the battalion commander. When you are a battalion commander you look back and see the company commanders, and look ahead and see the brigade commander,” Mandelblit said. “And so on, until you reach the position of chief of staff, where you look back and see the whole army behind you, and look ahead and see no one. You are alone at the front, bearing the full burden of responsibility.”

During a farewell cabinet meeting on Sunday, Mandelblit, who has previously warned that Israel’s tradition of faithful governance is at serious risk, also took a thinly veiled swipe at Netanyahu.

“There were those who tried to present the harm [they sought to cause] to the rule of law as an ideological move, under the pretext of ‘governance,’” he said. “But time and time again, we saw that what really stood behind these moves was a desire to advance personal interests, severely damaging the principle of fidelity to the public.”

Mandelblit ends his six-year term with State Prosecutor Amit Aisman to serve as acting attorney general until a permanent replacement enters office.

The ceremony at the Justice Ministry came a day after Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and Foreign Minister Yair Lapid gave their backing to Sa’ar’s recommendation of Gali Baharav-Miara as the next attorney general.

“Baharav-Miara is the most suitable, most ready and most worthy candidate, with the richest and most impressive professional knowledge and management,” Bennett said in a statement. “Baharav-Miara has great expertise and proficiency in the fields of public-administrative law and civil law.”

The appointment of the former Tel Aviv district attorney for civil affairs is pending cabinet approval, which is expected next week. She would be the first woman to serve in the role.

Gali Baharav-Miara. (Courtesy)

On Sunday, the search committee tasked with finding a new attorney general announced the names of the final three candidates, including Roi Scheindorf, the current deputy attorney general for international law, and Defense Ministry legal adviser Itai Ofir.

Some analysts were surprised that Raz Nizri, the current deputy attorney general for constitutional affairs, was left out, and he announced Monday that he would resign after being passed over.

Nizri spoke with Sa’ar on Monday afternoon, in what Channel 13 news described as a “charged” conversation, and expressed his disappointment while the minister reportedly tried to explain the reasoning behind his decision. The report said the two have agreed to meet.

An unnamed top official from the Justice Ministry criticized the decision not to nominate Nizri, telling Channel 13 that it was the result of the “politicization of the [nominating] committee” and “a shameful disgrace.”

A senior member of the coalition, said to be from a right-wing party, told Channel 13 that Nizri had lost out on the nomination only because he was perceived to support Netanyahu.

Raz Nizri, deputy attorney general, during a House Committee meeting at the Knesset in Jerusalem, May 21, 2019 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

“Sa’ar went too far and disqualified someone who undoubtedly deserved the position, because he was perceived in some way as being ‘in favor of Netanyahu’ or having a position that was conciliatory toward him in the indictment against him,” the anonymous official said.

According to reports, Nizri was in favor of dropping the bribery count, the most serious charge against the former prime minister, in a potential plea deal.

The new attorney general will have to determine whether and how to proceed with negotiations on a plea bargain for Netanyahu, whose lawyers negotiated with Mandelblit and reportedly came close to a deal in recent weeks.

Former justice minister Dan Meridor, who serves on the nomination committee, dismissed the accusations that Nizri was left off the shortlist because he was perceived to be “too conservative.”

“I can only say that what has been said is inaccurate,” Meridor told Channel 12 news. “Someone came up with something and built theories based on it but I will not talk about it. I can only say that no one voted against anyone — the choice was made in a positive way, not negative.”

Former Likud minister Dan Meridor attends a Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee on October 15, 2013. (Flash90)

Channel 13 reported that Meridor voted against Nizri alongside New Hope MK Zvi Hauser. The pair was seen to be representing Sa’ar on the committee.

Meanwhile, the selection committee head, former Supreme Court chief justice Asher Grunis, had objected to Baharav-Miara being on the shortlist, reportedly believing she did not have the relevant experience in criminal and constitutional law.

Channel 13 said that a majority of members of the selection panel backed Baharav-Miara.

Mandelblit’s replacement will have several other high-profile cases to deal with. These include the whereabouts of state gifts given to Netanyahu that the former premier was ordered to return, a gift of $20,000 that an Australian billionaire gave to ex-Mossad chief Yossi Cohen, and the alleged harassment of state’s witness Shlomo Filber by two Netanyahu aides.

Most Popular
read more: