No justice minister, no peace (and forget about pardons or proposed laws)

In Israel, only the justice minister can okay extraditions, allow people out of jail early or approve government legislation. It’s been nearly a week since Israel has had one

A protester holds symbolic scales of justice outside the District Court in Jerusalem, as Benjamin Netanyahu goes on trial on April 5, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)
A protester holds symbolic scales of justice outside the District Court in Jerusalem, as Benjamin Netanyahu goes on trial on April 5, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Since April 1, Israel has been without a justice minister, or even an acting justice minister, the latest unprecedented situation in a series of unprecedented situations wrought by the nation’s ongoing political logjam and, many say, the prime minister’s criminal trial.

The lack of a justice minister in a country where the head of government has been put on trial is not an April Fool’s joke, but rather the result of a series of events that have essentially created a stalemate in which the bicephalic government, uneasily ruled by the Likud and Blue and White parties, is unable to nominate a candidate for the post.

The government has been without a number of posts for months as the run-up to the March 23 election shuffled the political field and led some ministers to quit their roles and join other parties.

But unlike the water resources and higher education minister or social equality minister, two positions that have also been left empty, the justice minister is mandated by Israel’s quasi-constitutional Basic Laws, and allowing the country to go without a justice minister risks doing tremendous damage to legislative efforts and judicial process, according to two former justice ministers who spoke to The Times of Israel.

Defense Minister Benny Gantz, who as the leader of Blue and White forms one of the heads of the barely functioning power-sharing government, had served as acting justice minister until April 1, a role he took on for three months when his party deputy Avi Nissenkorn quit the justice minister post for what he thought were greener political pastures.

Defense Minister Benny Gantz and then Justice Minister Avi Nissenkorn visit the Jerusalem Municipality on November 10, 2020 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who as leader of Likud is the other head of the coalition, is barred from having any say on nominating a justice minister or any other judicial posts due to the conflict of interest it poses given his trial on criminal charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust.

Netanyahu, who is thought to want to have control over the appointment, has blocked the cabinet from discussing extending Gantz’s term or nominating a new candidate. He is thought to be stalling for time until a court actually compels the government to nominate and approve a new justice minister.

Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit, walks into the Justice Ministry in Jerusalem as a guard takes a break on October 2, 2019. (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)

On Sunday, two separate petitions were filed with the High Court of Justice by good governance groups seeking to push the cabinet to nominate a justice minister or explain why it will not.

The lack of a justice minister has serious ramifications for the ability of the judicial system to function properly in some areas, including signing off on sentence reductions for inmates or extradition orders. It will also affect the ability of the interim government to pass any new legislation, as government bills must first be okayed by the justice minister, who heads the Ministerial Committee for Legislation. This would even potentially affect urgent legislation regarding peace agreements and the battle against COVID-19.

“It’s not like the US, where the attorney general heads the Justice Department,” said Yossi Beilin, who served as justice minister from the Labor party from 1999 to 2001. “In Israel, there are some functions that only the justice minister can carry out. The minister must sign pardon applications, must endorse an array of legislative regulations. We can’t convene the Judicial Selection Committee [which nominates judges] without the minister.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sits with his lawyers at a hearing in his corruption trial at Jerusalem District Court, April 5, 2021. (POOL / AFP)

The standoff over the justice minister is just the latest in a series of appointments related to law enforcement or the judicial system that remain unfilled. Likud insists that it must sign off on any high-level appointments as per the coalition agreement with Blue and White, but Netanyahu’s conflict of interest restrictions forbid him from weighing in. The result has been that Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit has been filling his former role in an acting capacity for about a year, and is also acting state prosecutor. Israel was also without an approved police chief for over a year.

Yossi Beilin attends a Constitution, Law, and Justice, Committee meeting in the Knesset, on July 9, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

“It is more than the minister,” said Dan Meridor, who served as a justice minister from 1988 to 1992. “We are without an attorney general for more than a year, there’s no director-general for the Justice Ministry. The Justice Ministry has been watered down and handicapped.”

Beilin, who is one of the few critics of the premier to appear as a columnist in the Israel Hayom daily, surmised that Netanyahu may have underestimated the importance to the public of having a justice minister.

“I can only imagine that Netanyahu did not fathom the damage that will accrue in short order without a justice minister. Surely some citizens waiting on pardons, for example, will cry foul,” he said.

Former Likud minister Dan Meridor attends a Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee on October 15, 2013. (Flash90)

But Meridor, who hailed from Likud’s moderate wing, accused Netanyahu of essentially gutting the ministry due to his own legal woes, which the prime minister has blamed on a politically motivated witch hunt driven by the police, judges and the media, against whom he has led a public campaign.

“Former justice ministers Avi Nissenkorn and Benny Gantz shielded the state attorneys, police officers, judges. They protected them against attacks in these dire times,” he said.

“I view Netanyahu’s behavior as grievous,” Meridor added. “Law enforcement authorities are undergoing unparalleled assaults by Netanyahu, his allies, Knesset members and Likud ministers. While they’re at it, they are also undermining the [judicial] system. They blame judges for being lefties, tarnished Israel’s police chief Roni Alsheich. But Netanyahu is on trial in a court, not the street. There will be evidence and witnesses and it will be resolved not by the will of people, but on its merits.”

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