Justice minister’s appointee for state attorney turns down job after backlash

After attorney general objects, High Court freezes selection of Orly Ginsberg Ben-Ari; she says she won’t allow harm to justice system ‘on my account’

Orly Ginsberg Ben-Ari speaks to the press at the Central District Court in Lod on August 11, 2015. (Flash90)
Orly Ginsberg Ben-Ari speaks to the press at the Central District Court in Lod on August 11, 2015. (Flash90)

Justice Minister Amir Ohana’s contentious choice for acting state attorney turned down the job on Friday after her appointment caused intense controversy in the justice system.

“I renege on my agreement to serve as head of the prosecution,” Tel Aviv District deputy prosecutor Orly Ginsberg Ben-Ari wrote to Ohana.

Ginsberg Ben-Ari said she had been unwillingly dragged into a fight between larger forces. Though she thanked Ohana for his trust and expressed belief in her ability to succeed in the position, she lamented an “attempt to turn my selection into a political matter and present it as part of an effort to hurt the rule of law.” She said this “goes against my conduct and values.

“The atmosphere that has been created threatens to hurt public trust in the prosecution and erode it even further,” she said. “I won’t have the justice system hurt further on my account, so long as I’m able to prevent it.”

It was not immediately clear who Ohana’s next selection for the post would be.

Ohana had announced Ginsberg Ben-Ari’s appointment as the country’s top prosecutor on Tuesday after Shai Nitzan left the post on Monday.

Candidates for state attorney are normally of higher seniority than Ginsberg Ben-Ari current level. Her selection to a temporary (though renewable) three-month position as state attorney drew intense criticism from the attorney general and others.

Ohana has been a vociferous critic of Nitzan and the state prosecution, accusing judicial authorities of conspiring to topple Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on false or trumped-up charges.

Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit (L) and Justice Minister Amir Ohana attend an annual Justice Ministry conference in Airport City outside Tel Aviv on September 3, 2019. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit, the state attorney’s direct boss, came out against the appointment, saying Ohana had overstepped the bounds of his caretaker position in picking her.

And on Wednesday the High Court of Justice froze the appointment as it prepared to hear a petition that accused the caretaker justice minister of using the move to obstruct the indictment and prosecution of Netanyahu on corruption charges.

The petition by the Movement for Quality Government, a good governance group,  claimed there were indications that the appointment was made out of considerations about “the gatekeepers and elements of the law enforcement system pertaining to and related to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s investigations.”

Civil Service Commissioner Daniel Hershkowitz, who by law must be consulted on the appointment, also came out against it on procedural and organizational grounds, saying the reshuffle of the state prosecution’s hierarchy could “undermine” its procedures and hamper its ability to do its job.

Mandelblit said “the state attorney post is not supposed to be a ‘battleground’ between the minister and the attorney general.” He added that “this isn’t about the individual, but about how we ensure that the state attorney can carry out their duties without fear.”

Ohana’s position as justice minister in a caretaker government also puts him on shaky and unclear legal grounds. Since no coalition has been in place since the 20th Knesset voted to dissolve itself in January, with two subsequent elections in April and September failing to produce a parliamentary majority coalition, Ohana serves as a caretaker justice minister who has not, as required by law, been approved in a Knesset vote.

Justice Minister Amir Ohana attends a conference in Jerusalem on June 27, 2019 (Aharon Krohn/Flash90)

The decision to appoint Ginsberg Ben-Ari against Mandelblit’s wishes also runs counter to longstanding practice, according to which the attorney general has enjoyed wide latitude in selecting the next state attorney.

Ohana, a staunch ally of Netanyahu, was only appointed to the justice portfolio in June, by Netanyahu himself, and has spent the time since the appointment railing against the indictments against the prime minister, echoing in his rhetoric Netanyahu’s own claims of a conspiracy.

Ginsberg Ben-Ari has worked in the State Prosecutor’s Office for 28 years in a number of senior positions. She has extensive experience in the criminal and security fields and currently serves as head of the State Prosecutor’s Security Forum.

Mandelblit had reportedly rejected most candidates put forward by Ohana, including Ginsberg Ben-Ari, only giving approval to Deputy State Attorney for Criminal Matters Shlomo Lemberger to fill in for Nitzan.

Justice Minister Amir Ohana (L) with his candidate for interim state attorney Orly Ginsberg Ben-Ari, December 17, 2019. (Justice Ministry)

Ohana said in an interview with Channel 12 that he was not seeking a face-off with Mandelblit and had tried to win the attorney general’s backing for his appointee, but that Mandelblit was being “extremely unreasonable.”

The developments come amid a current political stalemate, which has left Israel without a properly elected government for nearly a year. The Knesset dissolved again last week and a third round of elections is set for March 2, 2020.

Netanyahu is facing indictments of fraud and breach of trust in three corruption cases, and a charge of bribery in one of the cases.

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