Supreme Court chief slams attack on justice system; AG: ‘No one’s above the law’
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First response of chief justice to Netanyahu charges fallout

Supreme Court chief slams attack on justice system; AG: ‘No one’s above the law’

Esther Hayut says ‘no greater error’ than suggesting state controlled by legal officials; Mandeblit warns justice minister over state prosecutor appointment: ‘I won’t compromise’

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

Supreme Court Chief Justice Esther Hayut speaks at an event in Nazareth, October 30, 2019. (Meir Vaknin/Flash90)
Supreme Court Chief Justice Esther Hayut speaks at an event in Nazareth, October 30, 2019. (Meir Vaknin/Flash90)

In her first public comments regarding the charges brought last month against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the subsequent attacks on the justice system from him and his allies, Supreme Court chief justice Esther Hayut on Thursday delivered an impassioned defense of Israeli jurisprudence, slamming efforts to besmirch law enforcement and legal officials.

“Recently, voices are growing among us seeking to present the principle of the rule of law as ‘the rule of the legal scholars’ and as a stumbling block that stands in the way of what is called by those people ‘governance.’ There is no greater error than this,” Hayut told a conference of The Israeli Association of Public Law in Haifa.

“The judges, public service attorneys, including the attorney general and state attorney, and all other law enforcement agencies entrusted with their office of law enforcement, do so in good faith, with professionalism and a deep sense of mission,” she said emphatically.

Hayut said that there was room for further oversight on certain areas within the legal system, but criticized “unbridled criticism,” which she said is unfair and even dangerous.

“None of us are free from mistakes and, therefore, control and supervision mechanisms are also required for each of the public servants I mentioned. But there is a great distance between such mechanisms and criticism that undermines the legitimacy of legal institutions in the State of Israel,” she said, adding, “When citizens believes the legal systems is undermined, the possibility of protecting the rights of individuals in society is undermined, the social order is undermined and the individual’s sense of security is impaired.”

After Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit announced indictments against Netanyahu in three corruption cases last month, the prime minister held a press conference in which he accused prosecutors of seeking to oust him from power with false charges in an “attempted coup.”

Illustrative: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu leads the weekly cabinet meeting at the Jordan valley, southern Israel on September 15, 2019. (Marc Israel Sellem)

Netanyahu claimed the investigation had been tainted by various improprieties and accused law enforcement authorities of “selective enforcement” against him. He demanded to “investigate the investigators.”

“I deeply respect the justice system in Israel. But you have to be blind not to see that something bad is happening to police investigators and the prosecution. We’re seeing an attempted coup by the police with false accusations” against him, Netanyahu charged.

His political allies soon took up the refrain, with Justice Minister Amir Ohana, a close ally of Netanyahu within the Likud party, lashing out at prosecutors, portraying them as a cabal that persecutes critics while being supported by a “cult” of fawning reporters. He appeared to allude to a so-called deep-state element within the system, saying “there is another prosecution — a prosecution within the prosecution. There are those who… have managed to establish a perception that a war of light against darkness [is being waged].”

Speaking after Hayut at the same conference, Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit delivered a similar defense of the judiciary, saying its values guarantee the rule of law in Israel.

“These values are the guarantee that Israel will safeguard human rights,” he said. “They guarantee that no person or regime institution will be above the law.”

Taking a direct stand against Ohana in a growing disagreement between the two over the appointment of an interim state prosecutor, Mandelblit said, “I am not looking for a clash with the justice minister, but I do not intend to compromise.”

Earlier Thursday, Ohana re-emphasized that his plans to choose the interim state prosecutor were continuing, putting himself on a collision course with Mandelblit, who reportedly intends to have the final say on who gets the job.

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

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 have reported.

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.

Speaking on Thursday, Mandelblit said that while Ohana does have the authority to appoint an interim state prosecutor on his own, it would be “inappropriate” given the importance of the position “as one of the heads of the law enforcement and criminal prosecution system, second only to the attorney general.”

Netanyahu faces pending charges of fraud and breach of trust in three separate criminal cases, as well as bribery in one of them. He denies any wrongdoing and claims to be the victim of a witch hunt involving the opposition, the media, the police and state prosecutors.

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