MKs push ahead with bill giving politicians control of probes into cops, prosecutors

State attorneys call strike after initial okay for measure placing Internal Investigations Unit directly under justice minister, who could order cases opened against state lawyers

A discussion and a vote in the Knesset plenum on February 22, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
A discussion and a vote in the Knesset plenum on February 22, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The Knesset plenum approved legislation in a preliminary reading on Wednesday that would bring the Police Internal Investigations Department (PIID) under the full, direct control of the justice minister, the latest part of a government project aimed at handing politicians the reins of key law enforcement bodies.

Currently, the PIID operates under the purview of the State Attorney’s Office, a separate organizational unit within the Justice Ministry. The bill will see the department instead report directly to a cabinet minister and come under the supervision of the Justice Ministry’s director-general, which the government is seeking to make a political appointee.

The department is currently tasked with investigating suspected crimes committed by police officers and employees of the Shin Bet security agency, and can in certain cases conduct criminal and disciplinary investigations into wrongdoing by civil service employees. Under the new law, which must still pass three full Knesset readings, the PIID’s powers will be expanded to allow probes into state prosecutors and the State Attorney, led by a new unit.

Critics have argued that the move will neuter the PIID by making it subject to political influence.

The Israel State Attorney Association, an organization that represents over 1,000 state attorneys in public service, declared Wednesday that members would participate in a strike Thursday to protest the bill.

The chairman of the organization, Orit Korin, said in a statement that the law will remove “an entire department and all its employees from the State Attorney’s office and transfer[…] it to an administrative and non-professional authority.”

This combination of photos created on January 24, 2023, shows Justice Minister Yariv Levin (L) and State Attorney Amit Aisman. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Korin added that the creation of a unit subordinate to a cabinet minister to investigate state attorneys amounts to “a serious and unilateral attack on prosecutors and a desire to threaten them while they are fulfilling their public duties.”

She warned that it would harm job security and working conditions for state attorneys.

The controversial bill was proposed by Likud MK Moshe Saada, a former deputy head of the PIID.

Saada made headlines over the summer with explosive claims that top members of the country’s legal establishment were willing to overlook illicit activity by former police chief Roni Alsheich due to fears that intervening in the matter would damage efforts to prosecute Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Saada was dismissed from the department in 2022 by the current head of the PIID, Keren Bar Menachem. In 2018, Bar Menachem was appointed to head the unit, beating out Saada who had been serving as acting chief for over a year.

Former deputy head of the Police Internal Investigations Department Moshe Saada speaks to Channel 12 on July 25, 2022. (Screenshot/Channel 12)

Former state attorney Shai Nitzan said Saada’s claims of misconduct, which were aired hours before he threw his hat into the political ring, were motivated by animus and political aspirations.

Netanyahu, who is standing trial for fraud, breach of trust and bribery, has accused police and prosecutors of conspiring to cook up charges against him in order to remove him from office, a claim backed by several of his political allies.

The bill argues that the PIID and State Attorney’s Office engage in “close cooperation” that creates “a striking conflict of interest…when decisions regarding the opening of an investigation, supervision of the investigation by the police, and the filing of an indictment against a senior police officer are given to the State Attorney.”

As long as the PIID is “an organic part of the State Attorney’s office, impartial investigations cannot be expected when it comes to senior police officers, with whom there are close working relationships,” the bill says.

It states that the head of the PIID will be appointed by the justice minister, currently Yariv Levin, a close ally of Netanyahu who is also spearheading radical, sweeping changes to the judiciary.

Saada’s proposed legislation will now move to a committee before returning to the plenum for three more readings before it can become a law. In a statement Wednesday, he welcomed the preliminary passage and said it “completely separates the Justice Ministry from the State Attorney’s Office in order to prevent a situation of immunity for senior officials.”

National Security Minister Ben Gvir, who has been at the forefront of an effort to wrench control of police operations, also welcomed the bill’s advancement.

“The State Attorney’s Office works closely with the police in full cooperation, [in] a situation that may lead to a conflict of interest when the need arises to file an indictment against a police officer or to investigate a state attorney,” he said.

National Unity MK Benny Gantz, a former defense minister who is part of the opposition, slammed the bill and accused the government of seeking to “destroy” law and order.

Gantz linked the bill to another effort aimed at wresting power from the judicial by cramping its ability to seek the removal of ministers found unfit to serve, saying it was designed  “to allow [Shas leader Aryeh] Deri to serve in office contrary to the ruling of the High Court.”

Shas chief Aryeh Deri leads a Knesset faction meeting on February 6, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Deri had been investigated and convicted of tax fraud, but entered a plea bargain in February 2022 that would let him give up his Knesset seat before his sentencing and avoid a hearing on whether the conviction carried moral turpitude — a designation that would have barred him from holding public office for seven years.

He was appointed health and interior minister when Netanyahu’s new hardline government was sworn in last month, but the High Court ruled that granting the Shas chief a cabinet post was “unreasonable in the extreme,” due to both his past criminal convictions and his promise to withdraw from political life as part of the plea bargain that he ostensibly did not honor.

The government is separately working on a bill aimed at restoring Deri to his ministerial positions by removing from the High Court of Justice the power to disqualify him as well as forbidding the use of a reasonability doctrine in arguments.

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