Outgoing state attorney decries attempt to ‘destroy’ judiciary over PM’s probes

Outgoing state attorney decries attempt to ‘destroy’ judiciary over PM’s probes

Shai Nitzan, painted by Netanyahu and his loyalists as a leftist bent on ousting the premier, lambastes efforts ‘to undermine public trust,’ calls claims of a ‘coup’ ridiculous

State Attorney Shai Nitzan speaks at the Makor Rishon Conference at the International Convention Center in Jerusalem, December 8, 2019. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)
State Attorney Shai Nitzan speaks at the Makor Rishon Conference at the International Convention Center in Jerusalem, December 8, 2019. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Outgoing State Attorney Shai Nitzan said Sunday that recent criticism of the justice system, which has been led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his supporters, seeks to destroy the judiciary.

Nitzan, speaking at a conference hosted by the right-wing Makor Rishon newspaper, said: “The criticism directed against us is designed to destroy the system at its foundations.”

Nitzan has come under fire by Netanyahu and his allies throughout the investigation of the prime minister in three corruption probes, and particularly since Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit announced criminal charges — bribery, breach of trust and fraud — against the prime minister last month.

The state attorney said he and other top prosecution officials had been subjected to “daily personal attacks.” Calls for the investigation and even jailing of prosecution officials were “the zenith, thus far, of a lengthy [effort] to undermine public trust in law enforcement in general and in its leaders in particular.”

He added: “This isn’t constructive criticism; this is criticism that aims to destroy.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends the weekly cabinet meeting at his office in Jerusalem, Israel, December 1, 2019. (Abir Sultan/Pool Photo via AP)

Critics such as Justice Minister Amir Ohana, a recent Netanyahu appointee, have claimed they are not out to wreck the system, but merely to point out problems and biases inherent in it.

Nitzan rejected such assertions. “There is no relation between pertinent criticism — which has and will always have a place — and the claims lobbed [at the justice system] recently,” he said. True reform could not be brought about through “slander and disparagement.”

Nitzan has been portrayed by the prime minister’s associates, without proof, as a left-wing activist bent on removing the premier from office through illegitimate means. Immediately after charges against him were officially announced, Netanyahu claimed they were “an attempted coup” against his rule.

Netanyahu has avoided claiming that Mandelblit himself is motivated by a leftist agenda (the religious Mandelblit was appointed by the premier and once served as cabinet secretary in the Likud-led government). Rather, he has sought to portray him as weak-willed, succumbing to intense pressure from agenda-driven prosecutors under him — claims that Mandelblit has strongly rejected.

Nitzan — along with Mandelblit and the lead prosecutor in the cases, Liat Ben-Ari — have all been receiving additional police protection over the past year due to threats from supporters of the prime minister.

“Attributing malicious intent to our decisions in the prime minister’s affairs is entirely baseless,” Nitzan said, “and could bring about the downfall of the foundations of our home.”

Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit, left, and Justice Minister Amir Ohana attend the annual Justice conference in Airport City, outside Tel Aviv, on September 3, 2019. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

Claims of a coup are “ridiculous,” he said, adding that “I’ve dedicated over half my life to public service. Over the past decades, there has been no state attorney who has represented the state’s position [as faithfully] as I.”

Mandelblit also recently spoke out strongly against the claims being made by the prime minister and his allies.

“The dignified approach we take is not always embraced by others,” Mandelblit said at an Eilat judicial conference in late November. “I am hearing expressions that don’t have a place in public discourse that are directed at the law enforcement system, and certain senior officials inside it. I am hearing threats. I am hearing lies. I am hearing baseless slander. That is simply shocking.”

Nitzan will step down from his post at the end of the week after completing his six-year term. The issue of a replacement has already set Mandelblit and Ohana on a collision course, with the Netanyahu loyalist insisting that he would choose the interim state attorney. Mandelblit reportedly intends to have the final word on who gets the job.

State Prosecutor Shai Nitzan arrives at the Justice Ministry headquarters in Jerusalem, on October 2, 2019, ahead of the start of the pre-indictment hearing for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. (Menahem Kahana/AFP)

Ohana has led several scathing attacks on the state prosecution since taking office, saying it acts unprofessionally and without oversight.

Any appointment to the post will be temporary, as the country has been without a permanent government since the April election failed to produce a coalition, leading to a second election and months of political gridlock that appear set to bring about the announcement in the coming days of yet another national vote.

An interim government does not have the authority to make permanent appointments to top government posts.

Mandelblit has said in closed meetings that he will strongly oppose any appointment by Ohana that is unacceptable to him, and that he may take the matter to the High Court of Justice, multiple Hebrew-language news outlets reported last week.

“Since we are a state of laws, the person who will make the decision about who will be the interim [state attorney] will be me, in consultation with the Civil Service Commissioner and the attorney general,” Ohana tweeted.

Justice Minister Amir Ohana speaks at the Knesset on September 11, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Ohana has presented a list of five candidates to serve as interim state attorney instead of Nitzan. Four of the prospective replacements are opposed by Mandelblit, and one has said he does not want the job.

Normally, a new state attorney is selected by a special committee appointed by the justice minister and headed by the attorney general. The latter is usually given freedom to choose a person they regard as worthy and with whom cooperation would be possible. However, Mandelblit has said that since Ohana is only serving in a caretaker government, he does not have the authority to form that committee.

Therefore, Ohana has given up on efforts to appoint a full-time replacement, and is focusing on tapping an interim state attorney, insisting that it is his job make the appointment.

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