Mandelblit assails justice minister for seeking to subvert legal system

Attorney general says Likud’s Amir Ohana acting out of obvious political interests, says he will not be deterred by attacks against him

Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit speaks at Bar-Ilan University. March 4, 2020 (FLASH90)
Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit speaks at Bar-Ilan University. March 4, 2020 (FLASH90)

Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit used remarkably strong words Wednesday to upbraid Justice Minister Amir Ohana for his ongoing attacks on Israel’s justice system and his efforts to discredit its decisions and machinations since taking office last year.

Since Ohana’s appointment by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in June of 2019, he and Mandelblit have repeatedly clashed over their respective roles in the Israeli justice system, with Ohana seeking to assert more control and relentlessly attacking the legitimacy of Netanyahu’s criminal cases.

At a legal conference at Bar-Ilan University, the attorney general denounced the notion that the country’s justice system should be subservient to the will of politicians and show loyalty to them over professionalism.

“The gatekeepers [of the rule of law] do not act against the government,” he said. “They act alongside it to promote the policies of elected officials. But at extreme points, when there is a clash between the regime and the law — and unfortunately as we know such instances can happen and are not theoretical — the gatekeepers must choose the law.

“A gatekeeper whose loyalty lies with the politicians that appointed him and not with the public interest cannot fulfill his post as a gatekeeper,” he said.

Justice Minister Amir Ohana speaks at the Knesset on September 11, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Netanyahu, Ohana and other right-wing allies have repeatedly sought to characterize the three criminal cases against the premier — on which a trial will begin on March 17 — as illegitimate, the result of a politically motivated witch hunt.

Earlier this week the prime minister claimed, apparently falsely, that reports have described as “leftists” the judges who will preside over his trial, and demanded a denial of the alleged claim.

Mandelblit said that attacks on the justice systems “have lately become commonplace” and have targeted him personally, alongside others.

“It is important to me to say: these attacks do not deter me. Nothing in the world will move me from the path of what is right, from law and justice. I do my job to maintain the rule of law in the country,” he said.

The attorney general went on to attack Ohana for railing against the indictments of the prime minister, lambasting “a reality in which the justice minister claims in an interview that the justice system has made ‘an extreme and serious mistake’ in filing an indictment and that the cases ‘will not lead to a conviction.'”

Mandelblit accused Ohana of making claims he could not possibly back up and said his political motivations were clear.

He noted that the minister was not actually privy to the evidence in the case nor “party to in-depth discussions regarding the implications of the evidence and a legal analysis of them.”

He went on to castigate “a reality in which the justice minister announces there are High Court rulings that should not be adhered to, and though he later walked back those comments, when the High Court recently issued an injunction he did not like against forming a committee on the Police Internal Investigations Department, he claimed that the High Court ‘banded together with the attorney general’ [on the matter].”

These, he said, were “only a few of many examples” showing an assumption “that the law and justice systems should show loyalty to the political echelon, otherwise their decisions should be ignored and not honored.”

He said another past statement by Ohana that he was preparing for the possibility that justice officials would seek to investigate him on trumped up charges was “unfounded and baseless.”

Acting State Attorney Dan Eldad (State Prosecution website portrait)

Mandelblit and Ohana most recently clashed over the appointment of an acting state attorney following the retirement of former state attorney Shai Nitzan. Since Israel is being led by an interim government since April of last year due to the inability to form a government that has led to three elections, Mandelblit said the appointment must be one he agrees to. But Ohana twice chose candidates the attorney general opposed. In the first case appointee Orly Ginsberg Ben-Ari eventually took herself out of the running due Mandelblit’s opposition. In the second Mandelblit eventually relented and agreed to the temporary appointment of Dan Eldad, formerly the director of the Economic Crimes Division of the State Prosecution.

But Mandelblit on Wednesday attacked Ohana’s insistence on Eldad only being appointed for an initial three-month period, upon completion of which the minister would decide whether to extend his term by another three months.

“The acting state attorney cannot be dependent on the good will of the justice minister alone in his appointment and the length of his term,” he said. “A situation where the acting state attorney is operating under the shadow of the possibility of his term not being extended if he does not show loyalty — is inappropriate.”

Netanyahu has been charged with fraud and breach of trust in three criminal cases — as well as bribery in one of them — that center on accusations he received illegal gifts and traded political favors for positive news coverage.

Last week media reports claimed Netanyahu may seek to dismiss Mandelblit or to seriously discredit him following the election.

Haaretz reported Friday that emissaries for Netanyahu have in recent months been working to dig up dirt on Mandelblit — particularly his involvement in the so-called “Harpaz affair” from 2010. Mandelblit was a suspect in the case but eventually was cleared of all wrongdoing by the High Court of Justice.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks to the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations in Jerusalem on February 16, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Kan TV news on Friday evening gave credence to the story, reporting that Netanyahu was concerned about Mandelblit’s coming decisions on two critical issues: his eligibility to be tasked with forming a government after the election despite his upcoming trial; and whether to open a new investigation into Netanyahu over his alleged failure to disclose his stock holdings in his cousin’s company.

Kan said Mandelblit was currently leaning towards launching an investigation.

And on Channel 12, veteran journalist Ilana Dayan said Mandelblit was preparing for the possibility that Netanyahu would attempt to oust him from his post if he wins a Knesset majority in the March 2 election, to be replaced by the acting State Attorney Dan Eldad.

Prior to the election there were also numerous reports that the prime minister could push for various legislative efforts to delay or derail his trial.

But as of Wednesday evening it seemed Netanyahu had not managed to achieve a majority in parliament, with only 58 seats won by his bloc, seemingly ensuring that legal proceedings against him would be able to proceed uninterupted.

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