Likud MKs on Wednesday castigated the Justice Ministry, with one of them threatening to “tear it down,” if Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit tries to force Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to recuse himself amid concerns that he is using his position to protect himself and undermine the rule of law as his corruption trial picks up pace.
The angry lawmakers said they would take on Mandelblit, even if it meant a coalition crisis and new elections.
The outbursts at a Likud Party faction meeting came just after Mandelblit was reported to be holding talks with senior officials about the possibility of requiring Netanyahu to step down. Mandelblit’s office denied this was the case, and restated his previous position that the prime minister need not suspend himself.
Mandelblit believes that Netanyahu’s use of government resources to push his case to the public — including calling press conferences ostensibly about the health emergency which are then used to question the reliability of law enforcement — could constitute a conflict of interest, the Haaretz daily said in an unsourced report.
Speaking at the Likud faction meeting, MK Uzi Dayan said the party needed to demand that Mandelblit “end his time in office.” Dayan said that the party needed to stick to its demands even if it meant the break up of the current government. “So we’ll go to elections,” he said.
The Blue and White party under Defense Minister Benny Gantz entered the coalition in May, promising to stand up for the rule of law. On Wednesday night Gantz panned Likud officials’ comments and vowed to protect justice officials.
Another Likud MK called to purge the Justice Ministry.
“If Mandelblit dares to rule such an illegal or ridiculous thing as this, the protests at Balfour will look like nothing in comparison [to the public outcry],” MK Shlomo Karhi tweeted, referring to the frequent anti-Netanyahu demonstrations outside his Jerusalem residence.
“There will be nothing left of the Salah-a-din party,” he added, in reference to the East Jerusalem street housing Justice Ministry offices, including the Attorney General’s Office, as well as the District Court where Netanyahu is being tried. “I am the D-9 [bulldozer] driver. We’ll tear it down and build it anew.”
Coalition Chairman Miki Zohar said Israel had reached an “unbelievable situation” where the “legal elites continue to plot how to overthrow the right-wing and its chosen leader.”
On Thursday, Zohar told the Kan public broadcaster that it was “time to make changes in the prosecution and police which have lost all restraint. Many of them are doing a great job, but we will eradicate the small portion of bad apples and go for that at full force.”
Netanyahu also lashed out at Mandelblit, the state prosecution and police on Wednesday evening, questioning the conduct of law enforcement and calling for an independent probe, after a news report earlier this week claimed officials covered up a serious conflict of interest by a police investigator so as not to derail the corruption investigations against him.
Netanyahu is on trial in three corruption cases, denies wrongdoing, and claims he is the victim of an attempted political coup.
The Haaretz report said that Mandelblit sees Netanyahu’s inability to juggle his positions as prime minister and criminal suspect as “essential incapacitation.” The attorney general is considering a move that would force the prime minister to take a “substantial” leave of absence, it said.
The Justice Ministry issued a statement later Wednesday saying Mandelblit’s previously stated view on the matter, that Netanyahu can remain in office while a defendant, has not changed. However, the statement did not deny the Haaretz report specifically, and the ministry said it would not divulge what is discussed at internal meetings.
Addressing an Israel Bar Association conference last week, Mandelblit said, “starting in the coming months, the prime minister’s trial will be held at the Jerusalem District Court, with a high frequency of hearings… To me this fact in itself doesn’t establish any cause for the prime minister’s recusal.”
But according to Wednesday’s Haaretz report, Mandelblit was only speaking regarding the technical aspect of the trial’s proceedings, arguing that the fact that the premier will sometimes have to spend long hours at court hearings — which are slated to take place three times a week starting in January — is not enough to require a recusal in and of itself.
Against the backdrop of Netanyahu’s ongoing attacks on the law enforcement system, Mandelblit is considering requiring such a significant recusal after all, the report suggested.
The Haaretz report was published minutes before Netanyahu gave an address at the start of an “urgent” Likud faction meeting, during which he again railed at justice officials.
Netanyahu spoke out against Mandelblit, saying that the AG would never re-open Case 2000, in which Netanyahu is accused of a quid-pro-quo with a newspaper publisher for positive coverage in exchange for hobbling a rival.
Channel 12 had reported Monday that senior law enforcement officials recently filed a complaint with the state comptroller, alleging that senior police officers and the former state prosecutor engaged in a widespread cover-up of a serious conflict of interest by one of the investigators into Netanyahu and his wife, Sara.
The report also claimed that former state prosecutor Shai Nitzan closed several probes into alleged police wrongdoing out of fear it could tarnish the image of law enforcement as it was investigating Netanyahu for corruption.
“Is it possible that the attorney general didn’t know about all this behavior? Is it possible he didn’t approve this? I estimate with caution that the attorney general will not check into this. There’s no alternative but an independent inquiry,” Netanyahu said Wednesday.
“Obviously there are political decisions being made here by senior law enforcement officials who are distorting justice and the law in order to overthrow a right-wing prime minister, in order to overthrow us,” the premier raged.
“It is impossible not to be shocked. This conduct must be investigated. But who will investigate? The police chief who protects the investigator? The state prosecutor who protects the police chief? Perhaps the attorney general? Could it be that the attorney general did not know about all of this misconduct? Could it really be that he did not approve of this misconduct?”
Both coalition and opposition lawmakers criticized the rhetoric used by Netanyahu and his fellow faction members against law enforcement during the Likud faction meeting.
“After the insane statement of the prime minister calling for an independent inquiry into the prosecution, Blue and White cannot remain in this destructive government. Netanyahu is rushing to abolish democracy in Israel. They cannot continue to support it,” Opposition chairman Yair Lapid (Yesh Atid) said in a statement.
Blue and White chairman Gantz stridently split with Netanyahu on the issue as well, vowing to protect members of the law enforcement community from attacks.
“You do your jobs and defend the rule of law and democracy, and we will do ours and protect you,” Gantz said at the start of a Blue and White faction meeting.
“Harsh attacks from those in power against the law enforcement system are a danger to Israeli democracy,” he added. “This is not legitimate criticism, and it’s nothing but an attempt to dismantle [the system].”
“The justice system was not born and will not be torn down for the benefit or harm of one man or another,” Gantz said. “We will stand together as a wall to protect the law enforcement system.”
Meanwhile, President Reuven Rivlin issued a rare rebuke of law enforcement agencies against the backdrop of the Channel 12 report.
“State agencies and countries have the responsibility to criticize themselves and apologize for mistakes. The strength of the system, every system, is measured in its ability to allow such an investigation when needed, to admit mistakes, to be accountable, and to mend its ways in the future. Even after time has passed, one can say, we made a mistake, we erred, we’ll check it, we’ll investigate,” the president said in a statement.
Channel 12 cited unnamed political sources as asserting that Netanyahu’s demand for an independent investigation into law enforcement authorities’ conduct was part of a strategy to postpone the resumption of his trial.
The sources said they believed the prime minister hopes the establishment of an independent inquiry committee would allow him to submit a request for his trial to be put on hold until the misconduct allegations against prosecutors are properly addressed.
Monday’s explosive Channel 12 report also claimed police mishandled the case of a Bedouin man who was shot dead in 2017, with police falsely claiming Yaqoub Abu al-Qia’an was carrying out a terror attack. The report said Nitzan had suppressed evidence that would have challenged then-police chief Roni Alsheikh’s assertion that Abu al-Qia’an was a terrorist. On Tuesday, Netanyahu officially apologized for the government’s repeated insistence that Abu al-Qia’an was a terrorist. He claimed law enforcement officials had sought “to turn [Abu al-Qia’an] into a terrorist in order to hurt me.”
Frustration over the Monday Channel 12 report spilled over into the Knesset Wednesday, with Likud Minister David Amsalem declaring that he would use his post to prevent the key Ministerial Committee for Legislation from meeting until the leaders of Likud and Blue and White hash out their differences.
Amsalem made the remarks after Justice Minister Avi Nissenkorn accused Netanyahu of “cynically” exploiting the 2017 police killing of Abu al-Qia’an for his own political gain.
Blue and White MK Izhar Shay on Thursday told Radio 103FM that his party would not “allow cynical use of the death of the teacher in Umm al-Hiran, which is a tragic incident in itself, or of faults that may or may not have occurred in the prosecution.
“For that, we have the institutions that know how to investigate and deal with those question marks,” he added. “We won’t allow Israel’s gatekeepers to be taken hostage.”
Mandelblit on Wednesday denied that the state prosecution had ever declared Abu al-Qia’an a terrorist, calling it a “false claim.”
“The goal of these claims is to delegitimize the law enforcement system and its decisions on matters relating to the prime minister.”
Moreover, his office said in a statement that “the tragic event [of Abu al-Qia’an’s killing] and the investigation that followed [have] nothing to do with the prime minister.”