Netanyahu meets AG for tense talks, reportedly on plan to split her role into two

‘Introductory’ meeting said to include discussion on dividing responsibilities; new coalition hostile to Baharav-Miara following her opposition to its proposed legislation

Jeremy Sharon is The Times of Israel’s legal affairs and settlements reporter

Attorney General  Gali Baharav-Miara speaks at Tel Aviv Univerisity. September 28, 2022. (Avshalom Sassoni/FLASH90)
Attorney General Gali Baharav-Miara speaks at Tel Aviv Univerisity. September 28, 2022. (Avshalom Sassoni/FLASH90)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met Attorney General Gali Baharav-Miara on Sunday against a backdrop of strained relations, with the prime minister’s incoming government vowing to enact far-reaching judicial reforms — among them planned changes to significantly weaken her position.

According to the Prime Minister’s Office, the meeting lasted an hour and “was substantive and dealt with current issues on the agenda.” The Justice Ministry declined to comment on what was discussed.

On the agenda was a discussion of splitting the position of attorney general into two roles — a chief prosecutor and a government legal adviser — according to Hebrew media reports.

A spokesman for Netanyahu said Sunday’s meeting was merely for introductory purposes, but did not comment on whether splitting the attorney general role would be discussed.

Earlier on Sunday, Baharav-Miara met with new Justice Minister Yariv Levin, who is an ardent proponent of passing radical reforms to the legal and judicial system, among them a law to dramatically curtail the authority of the High Court of Justice.

During the election campaign, several Likud MKs called on Netanyahu to fire Baharav-Miara should he become prime minister again, while the attorney general has publicly criticized the legislative plans of the new government, particular its plans for the High Court.

In an apparent snub, the attorney general was not invited to attend the inaugural meeting of the new cabinet on Thursday night.

The division of the attorney general position in two has been a long-term goal of the political right, which believes the role has grown too powerful and argues that having two separate roles leads to a conflict of interests.

Conservative critics have for years been arguing that having the same official hold both roles at once creates an inherent conflict of interest when deciding whether to press charges against a member of the government.

The recently signed coalition agreements do not explicitly mention splitting the attorney general position, but do include a section insisting that all coalition parties will support a proposal by Justice Minister Yariv Levin dealing with “arrangements for the relationship between the branches [of government] and their authorities” including “the relationship between the Knesset and government with the legal system and the High Court of Justice.”

Baharav-Miara was appointed by the previous government and has faced threats from numerous members of the new coalition that she would be fired under a new hardline government.

President Isaac Herzog (bottom right) and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (bottom left) in a group picture of the new government at the President’s Residence in Jerusalem, December 29, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

In recent months, the attorney general has publicly spoken out against some of the proposed legislation and policies of the new government, criticizing in particular government proposals to neuter the High Court’s powers of judicial review; turn ministerial legal advisers into political, not professional, appointments; and the expansion of the powers over the police for National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir, who heads the far-right Otzma Yehudit party.

Baharav-Miara’s criticism of the planned moves set off a firestorm of denunciations from members of what was then the incoming government.

Some MKs including the Likud’s Yoav Kisch had already threatened to dismiss her once a new coalition was formed, for what they allege is her political opposition to the new government.

Netanyahu — who is on trial on corruption charges — and members of his party have frequently railed at prosecutors, law enforcement, and the court system in recent years, claiming without evidence that the ex-premier was indicted on trumped-up charges in order to force him from office.

On Thursday, the new government failed to invite Baharav-Miara or a deputy to its inaugural cabinet meeting, an unusual step since the attorney general is generally needed in all such meetings to provide the government with legal advice on the agenda.

The Likud party said that the meeting was entirely ceremonial without any formal decisions being made, and that Baharav-Miara’s presence was therefore not needed. However, the attorney general has traditionally been invited to ceremonial events.

On Saturday night, MK Gideon Sa’ar, who served as justice minister in the last government and nominated Baharav-Miara, said that despite the tensions with the new government she should not resign, saying that no attorney general had ever stepped down due to a change of government following an election.

Justice Minister Gideon Sa’ar speaks in the Knesset, December 26, 2022. (Noam Moshkavitz/Knesset Spokesperon)

“They might try and put her in that corner,” Sa’ar told Channel 12 news.

“I know that I appointed the most fitting person for the role that I knew, and I know a lot of jurists,” said Sa’ar, who is a longtime advocate for judicial reform but opposes giving the government total control over judicial appointments and abolishing the principle of judicial review.

“She is the best in terms of her decision-making ability, backbone, and professional ability. I believe in her ability to deal with difficult circumstances,” Sa’ar said.

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