Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu notified the High Court of Justice on Thursday that he rejects Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit’s legal position that bars the premier from making law enforcement appointments due to conflicts of interest stemming from the criminal charges against him.
The move set up a possible showdown between Netanyahu and his top legal official, who has charged the premier in three criminal cases. It came hours after a top Netanyahu ally was interrogated by police on suspicion of attempting to blackmail Mandelblit into resigning.
According to the Haaretz daily, Mandelblit plans on recommending that Netanyahu step down as premier if he doesn’t agree to the attorney general’s conflict of interest arrangement barring him from appointing key law enforcement officials such as police chief and state prosecutor.
“The law does not grant the attorney general the authority to determine conflict of interest on a particular issue,” Netanyahu’s attorneys wrote on his behalf, claiming that only the prime minister himself is authorized to make such a determination.
“The prime minister is of the opinion that there is no place for the restrictions stated in the section of the opinion regarding involvement in the method of appointments,” Netanyahu’s lawyers wrote to the High Court.”This is an issue that is an important part of the coalition agreement and the political controversy in the Knesset, and imposing restrictions on the prime minister on this issue will harm the fulfillment of the voter’s will.”
The unity government agreement between Netanyahu’s Likud and Defense Minister Benny Gantz’s Blue and White gave each party a veto on key senior appointments.
Mandelblit published his final legal opinion on the matter Monday, saying that Netanyahu could not even be involved in appointments indirectly through his associates.
Israel has been without a confirmed police chief for years and for the last several months Mandelblit has filled in as acting state prosecutor, with the government refusing to appoint a replacement. Mandelblit’s term is slated to end next year.
Mandelblit said the conflict of interest arrangement does not require the approval of the premier, who has been battling with the attorney general for months, demanding to be involved in the appointment of the attorney general’s successor and others.
The Haaretz news site said Mandelblit’s deputy Dina Zilber had recently negotiated with Netanyahu’s lawyers, resulting in the softening of some restrictions featured in previous drafts of the arrangement.
Under Mandelblit’s arrangement, Netanyahu also cannot be involved in any matters that affect witnesses or other defendants in his trial, or legislation that would impact the legal proceedings against him.
He cannot intervene in matters related to the status of several top police and prosecution officials, in several fields under the responsibility of the Communications Ministry, or in the Judicial Appointments Committee, which appoints judges to the Jerusalem District Court — where his trial is being conducted — and the Supreme Court, which would hear any appeals in the case.
Netanyahu can be involved in the appointment of ministers, but “must avoid influencing the manner in which those representatives do their jobs regarding the Supreme Court and Jerusalem District Court judges.”
Netanyahu in August rejected an earlier draft of the 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.
But the premier subsequently told the High Court of Justice that he would take no role in appointing senior Justice Ministry officials and an Israel Police commissioner.
Netanyahu’s trial on charges of accepting bribes, fraud, and breach of trust opened in May in the Jerusalem District Court.
Netanyahu is accused of offering to advance legislation benefiting powerful Israeli media moguls in exchange for more positive coverage in their publications. He has also been charged with accepting some $200,000 in illicit gifts such as cigars and champagne from two billionaires — Hollywood-based Israeli movie mogul Arnon Milchan and Australian magnate James Packer.
He denies any wrongdoing and has derided the cases as a politically motivated witchhunt, souring ties between him and Mandelblit.
Earlier on Thursday, police said they were questioning Likud coalition whip Miki Zohar after he threatened live on the radio to release “dirt” on Mandelblit if he did not resign. Mandelblit okayed the probe.