AG says Netanyahu can’t deal with judicial shakeup amid trial; he rejects her stance

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Attorney General Gali Baharav-Miara informed Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Wednesday that he cannot be involved in his government’s efforts to radically overhaul the legal and judicial system because he has a conflict of interests due to his ongoing corruption trial.

In a filing to the High Court of Justice filed hours later, Netanyahu said he viewed Baharav-Miara’s position on the matter as “unacceptable.” He also requested two weeks to full respond to her letter.

The attorney general’s pronouncement drew a sharp response from the heads of all coalition party leaders, who said in a joint statement that it flew in the face of the “unambiguous mandate” received by the government in the elections.

Baharav-Miara’s warning followed a petition filed by the Movement for Quality Government in Israel to the High Court of Justice last month demanding that the attorney general draw up an updated conflict of interests arrangement for Netanyahu after he took office as premier once again in January.

Also Thursday, the Haaretz daily reported that the threat level for Baharav-Miara was raised to the highest possible level, with security agencies citing “real concern” she could be harmed. The report said the security detail around the attorney-general will be expanded.

In her letter that was released publicly on Thursday, Baharav-Miara wrote to Netanyahu: “In your role as prime minister, you must refrain from initiatives involving the legal system within the framework known as ‘the legal reform.’

“This is due to the reasonable suspicion of a conflict of interests between issues pertaining to the legal proceedings against you, and the array of legislative initiatives and their substantive components” that the government is advancing in its package of legal reforms, she continued.

“This includes any direct or indirect action or instruction through others, including the involvement of officials serving in your office as political appointees,” the attorney general added.

Chairman of the Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee MK Simcha Rothman leads a committee hearing on his sweeping legal reform agenda alongside the legal adviser to the committee attorney Gur Bligh, February 1, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Included in the government’s proposed legal overhaul is legislation that would give the government an automatic majority on the committee that selects judges for every court in the country, including the Supreme Court.

Should Netanyahu be convicted on the corruption charges against him in the trial currently being held in the Jerusalem District Court, he would be able to appeal the conviction to the Supreme Court, to which his government is likely to make appointments during its tenure.

The prime minister said in an interview with CNN on Tuesday that he was willing to “hear counter offers” to the sweeping legal reform package his government is proposing, implying that he is involved in how the reforms are being formulated and advanced.

The heads of the coalition parties denounced the attorney general’s letter, saying in a joint statement that her position was “in total opposition to the unambiguous mandate that we received from Israeli citizens in the election,” and that they “totally rejected” her stance.

“There is no connection between the legal reform of [Justice Minister] Yariv Levin whose goal is to restore democracy to Israel, and the prime minister’s issues,” they continued, though Levin tied the two during a speech to the Knesset last month.

“The ones who have a conflict of interests are in fact the legal advisers. With one hand they are fighting the reforms in public and in the Knesset, which will affect their status, and with the other hand they are exploiting their positions in order to thwart it.”

A Likud spokesman said the statement was issued on behalf of Netanyahu, together with Shas leader Aryeh Deri, United Torah Judaism leader Yitzhak Goldknopf, Religious Zionism leader Bezalel Smotrich, Otzma Yehudit leader Itamar Ben Gvir, and Noam leader Avi Maoz.

The Movement for Quality Government welcomed the attorney general’s warning to Netanyahu, saying the prime minister should “remove his hands immediately from the destruction of Israel’s legal and democratic system.”

Netanyahu’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment, but Levin, the justice minister, strongly criticized Baharav-Miara’s letter and accused her of herself having a conflict of interests.

He noted that some of the proposed reforms will affect the position of the attorney general and government legal advisers more generally.

“It seems that a conflict of interests is a very strange thing. For an elected official to speak about reforms to legal advice is forbidden, but the attorney general and her staff are allowed to block reforms that directly affect their powers,” said Levin.

In January, Baharav-Miara filed an opinion with the High Court stating that a conflict of interest agreement drawn up by her predecessor Avichai Mandelblit in 2020 for Netanyahu was still in effect.

Under the arrangement, Netanyahu cannot be involved in any matters that affect witnesses or other defendants in his trial, or in legislation that would impact the legal proceedings against him.

He also cannot intervene in any issues 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 Selection Committee.

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