Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit on Thursday dismissed Prime Minister Netanyahu’s demand that he recuse himself from involvement with handling the premier’s conflicts of interest.
In a letter sent earlier in the day to Mandelblit, Netanyahu family lawyer Yossi Cohen said the attorney general had his own conflicts of interest on the matter, namely his decision to indict the prime minister in a series of graft cases.
Mandelblit previously gave a legal opinion saying Netanyahu can’t appoint top legal or police officials due to the criminal charges against him.
Netanyahu had demanded that Mandelblit recuse himself from matters of restrictions placed on the premier regarding top judicial or law enforcement appointments.
Netanyahu’s attorney 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 media reported.
“The decision on this matter should be referred to the State Comptroller or a retired judge such as Justice Turkel,” Cohen wrote, referring to former Supreme Court Justice Jacob Turkel.
Two weeks ago Mandelblit informed Netanyahu that he cannot appoint 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.
The statement came in a Justice Ministry response to the High Court of Justice, relating to a petition seeking limits on Netanyahu’s powers to make judicial appointments.
Thursday’s letter to Mandeblit, that was first reported by Channel 13 news, declared that because Mandelblit had filed the indictments that led to Netanyahu’s corruption trial, the attorney general has his own conflict of interest. In addition, the letter noted that Mandelblit recently ruled that Netanyahu cannot receive cash support from wealthy benefactors to cover the costs of his legal defense in the trial, another supposed point against him being able to handle the matter.
Cohen also claimed the move to restrict Netanyahu’s involvement in legal appointments was as way of preventing the prime minister from proving his assertion that inappropriate means were used to build the cases against him.
Netanyahu has claimed, without providing evidence, that the cases are part of a conspiracy to oust him from power.
“With your approval or knowledge, investigative actions were taken that allegedly amount to criminal offenses with the aim of trying to incriminate the prime minister at all costs,” Cohen wrote in the letter, as cited by Channel 13. “The draft conflict of interest arrangement seeks to prevent the clarification of the above serious allegations.”
In his response Mandelblit said Cohen’s claims were “baseless.”
Justice Turkel told the Ynet website that no one had contacted him about taking over the conflict of interest arrangement.
Two of Netanyahu’s three criminal cases include allegations the prime minister offered to push legislation benefiting powerful Israeli media moguls in exchange for more positive coverage in their publications.
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 Benny Gantz’s Blue and White party.
Netanyahu earlier this 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 Netanyahu 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, saying 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 the left-wing opposition, media, police and state prosecution have conspired in an attempt to frame and oust him in a political coup.
On Sunday a judge ruled that Netanyahu’s corruption trial will begin to hear testimony from witnesses in January 2021, with hearings to be held three times a week.
The premier’s defense attorney had asked for a delay due to the coronavirus pandemic, citing the requirement to wear face masks as an obstacle to proceedings.