Smotrich warns of unrest if Mandelblit tries to disqualify Netanyahu as PM

Religious Zionism leader says public will ‘fight for their independence and sovereignty’ should AG move to deem premier unfit to serve following ‘illegal’ cabinet vote

Raoul Wootliff is the The Times of Israel's political correspondent.

Head of the Religious Zionism party Bezalel Smotrich gives a press statement in the Knesset, in Jerusalem, April 4, 2021. (Olivier FItoussi/Flash90)
Head of the Religious Zionism party Bezalel Smotrich gives a press statement in the Knesset, in Jerusalem, April 4, 2021. (Olivier FItoussi/Flash90)

Religious Zionism party leader Bezalel Smotrich warned Wednesday that the public will “fight for their independence and sovereignty” if Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit moves to disqualify Benjamin Netanyahu as prime minister following a cabinet vote that Mandelblit deemed illegal.

The High Court of Justice on Tuesday temporarily froze the appointment of Likud MK Ofir Akunis as justice minister, hours after the cabinet — led by Netanyahu — openly defied Mandelblit’s forceful warnings.

By holding the vote, Mandelblit told Netanyahu during the meeting, the Likud-led bloc of the caretaker government had flouted a quasi-constitutional Basic Law, amended last year by Netanyahu and Benny Gantz, that reserved the position for a candidate backed by Gantz’s Blue and White-led bloc.

Following the vote, the Movement for Quality Government in Israel, an anti-corruption watchdog, said it would petition the High Court to have Netanyahu removed from office.

While Mandelblit has not publicly commented on the prospect of disqualifying Netanyahu due to his actions in the cabinet meeting, and has repeatedly rejected previous calls to deem the premier unfit to serve, Smotrich on Wednesday warned the attorney general against considering the move.

“Mandelblit is not authorized to declare the prime minister unfit [for office]. There is no such law,” Smotrich tweeted.

“This dangerous threat is not a threat to Netanyahu. That is not the issue at all. It is a threat to democracy and to the people, and if Mandelblit forces a coup d’état, he will meet the opposing power of the people, who will fight for their independence and sovereignty,” he warned.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (L) and Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit (R). (Flash90)

Tuesday’s chaotic cabinet meeting took place a month after Gantz’s term as interim justice minister ended, significantly constraining the ministry and the executive branch in their ability to operate.

Netanyahu has refused to hand Gantz the portfolio, due to what is widely viewed as part of an effort to maintain control of the justice system while he is on trial in the three corruption cases brought against him by Mandelblit.

Critics have accused him of intentionally seeking to weaken the justice system during his criminal trial, as he hopes to appoint a minister who will be friendlier to his cause.

Netanyahu, who is on trial on charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust, has railed against the judiciary, attorney general, and media, accusing them of attempting to remove him from power. He denies any wrongdoing.

The Supreme Court has recently held several decisions regarding Netanyahu’s fitness to serve due to the corruption charges against him, and last week rejected a petition that sought to bar him from forming a government following the March 23 elections, the fourth in two years. But it has also left the door open to potentially disqualifying Netanyahu at a future date.

The High Court of Justice convenes to discuss the vacant justice minister post on April 27, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Following Tuesday’s cabinet meeting, Supreme Court justices ruled that Akunis could not serve as justice minister until the court decides otherwise and said the position would remain vacant in the interim.

Netanyahu and Akunis were given until Wednesday morning to justify why they believe the appointment should go through, but have requested more time to submit their response.

The judges are currently set to reconvene on Wednesday at 3:30 p.m. to discuss the arguments before reaching a final decision, the ruling stated.

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