Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Friday indicated that he would not accept Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit’s instruction to recuse himself from making senior law enforcement appointments while he is a criminal defendant, continuing a war of words between the two over the matter.
Netanyahu said he rejected a draft conflict of interest arrangement proposed by Mandelblit, claiming that the attorney general himself was in a conflict of interest since he made the decision late last year to indict the prime minister in three corruption cases.
Last month, Mandelblit sent the draft arrangement to Netanyahu, which would bar him from appointing top legal or police officials, citing a conflict of interest due to the premier’s ongoing corruption trial, the Justice Ministry said at the time.
In a legal opinion, Mandelblit said Netanyahu must not be involved in the nomination of judges or the police commissioner, as well as any other appointments that would meddle with the work of the state prosecution, the Attorney General’s Office, or police investigations.
Two weeks later, Netanyahu family lawyer Yossi Cohen sent a letter to Mandelblit saying the attorney general had his own conflicts of interest on the matter, namely his decision to indict the prime minister in the series of graft cases, and should recuse himself from matters of restrictions placed on the premier regarding top judicial or law enforcement appointments.
Cohen wrote to Mandelbit that “It is neither appropriate nor fitting for the attorney general or any of his subordinate attorneys to be involved in formulating a conflict of interest arrangement that will apply to the prime minister,” Hebrew-language media reported.
Mandelblit dismissed that demand at the time, calling Cohen’s claims “baseless.”
On Thursday, Mandelblit sent a letter to Netanyahu’s attorneys, saying his draft proposal would become binding if they did not provide an official response by Sunday.
On Friday, Hebrew-language media reported that Netanyahu wrote to Mandelblit that his proposal “is unreasonable, lacks authority and is marred by an inherent conflict of interest.”
Netanyahu claimed that existing government rules stipulate that matters related to conflicts of interest are referred to the state comptroller or a former judge, not the attorney general.
“Despite the clear rules… the attorney general is trying to set out his own rules,” Netanyahu wrote. “Could there be a reason for that other than the severe conflict of interest in which he currently finds himself?”
He likened Mandelblit’s basing his legal opinion on rules written by the attorney general himself to “a person trying pull himself up by his own bootstraps.
“I hereby notify you that I reject the draft conflict of interests agreement you proposed,” Netanyahu wrote. “I will act in accordance with the binding conflict of interest rules, and I will take action to notify the state comptroller about the matter.”
Netanyahu also asked for his lawyers to be allowed to meet Mandelblit’s deputy, Dina Zilber, to “clarify the matters.”
The issue of senior law enforcement appointments has recently become a key issue in the coalition crisis between Netanyahu’s Likud party and Defense Minister Benny Gantz’s Blue and White. A standoff between them about whether the state budget should cover two years — as Blue and White demands and as stipulated in the coalition deal — or just the rest of 2020, as Likud wants, could send Israel to elections, the fourth since April 2019, if not solved by August 25 (or if that deadline isn’t postponed).
Many believe the real issue at hand is Netanyahu’s unwillingness to hand over the premiership to Blue and White chairman Benny Gantz in November 2021, as agreed to in the coalition deal. The only clear way for elections to be called without Gantz automatically becoming transitional prime minister is for the sides to fail to pass the budget.
A report this week said Likud was demanding several other changes to the coalition deal. One of them was to cancel the formation of a professional committee tasked with making senior law enforcement appointments, and return that power to politicians. That demand is bitterly opposed by Blue and White’s Justice Minister Avi Nissenkorn.
The prime minister in the past has also sought to advance legislation that would shield him from prosecution, though those efforts were put on ice with the formation of the unity government with Blue and White.
Netanyahu last month launched a scathing, unprecedented attack against Mandelblit, whom he appointed and who served previously as the PM’s cabinet secretary, accusing him of being part of a deep-state conspiracy aiming to oust the premier for political reasons.
Netanyahu was slammed by his rivals over the accusations, which he made in a series of tweets and retweets. A watchdog said it would file a police complaint for incitement over the matter.
The harangue came after Mandelblit told the Permits Committee at the State Comptroller’s Office that he opposed Netanyahu’s request to receive some NIS 10 million ($2.9 million) in outside funding for his legal defense in his corruption trial. The attorney general said the donation was tantamount to an illicit gift. The committee rejected the premier’s request on the basis of the attorney general’s recommendation.
Mandelblit indicted Netanyahu last year on charges of fraud and breach of trust in three criminal investigations, as well as bribery in one of them. The cases center on accusations that Netanyahu received illegal gifts and traded political favors for positive news coverage.
Netanyahu denies any wrongdoing, and claims without evidence that the left-wing opposition, media, police and state prosecution have conspired in an attempt to frame and oust him in a political coup.