Attorney General: PM must not deal with judicial overhaul due to corruption trial

Attorney General Gali Baharav-Miara told Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Wednesday that he cannot participate in his government’s efforts to overhaul the legal and judicial system because of a conflict of interest related to his corruption trial.

The announcement drew a sharp reaction from the leaders of all the coalition parties, who in a joint statement said it was against the “unequivocal mandate” the government had won in the election.

Baharav-Miara’s warning follows a petition by Israel’s Quality Government movement to the Supreme Court last month demanding that the attorney general draw up an updated conflict-of-interest agreement for Netanyahu after he is reinstated as prime minister in January.

Also on Thursday, Haaretz reported that the threat level for Baharav-Miara had been raised to the highest level, with security agencies citing “real concerns” that he could be harmed. The report said the security detail around the attorney general would be expanded.

In a letter made public on Thursday, Baharav-Miara wrote to Netanyahu: “In your role as prime minister, you must abandon initiatives involving the legal system in the framework of so-called ‘legal reform.’

“This is explained by the issues surrounding the legal proceedings against you and the suspicion based on the conflict of interest between the legislative initiatives and their important components,” he continued, which the government has been promoting in its legal reform package.

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

MK Simcha Rotman, chairman of the Knesset’s Constitution, Law and Justice Committee, chairs a committee hearing on his sweeping legal reform agenda, along with committee attorney legal counsel Gur Bligh, February 1, 2023. (Jonathan Sindel/Flash90)

The government’s proposed legal reform includes legislation that would give the government an automatic majority vote on the committee that selects judges for every court in the country, including the Supreme Court.

If Netanyahu is convicted of the corruption charges against him in a trial currently underway in the Jerusalem District Court, he could appeal the verdict to the Supreme Court, where his government can make appointments while in office.

The prime minister told CNN on Tuesday that he was ready to “listen to counter-proposals” to his government’s proposed package of sweeping legal reforms, meaning he would be involved in how the reforms are designed and improved.

Leaders of the coalition parties condemned the attorney general’s letter, saying in a joint statement that his position was “absolutely contrary to the unequivocal mandate we received from the citizens of Israel in our elections” and that he “absolutely rejects” his position.

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“There is no connection between legal reform [Justice Minister] Yariv Levin, whose goal is to restore democracy in Israel and the problems of the prime minister,” they continued.

“Those who have a conflict of interest are actually legal advisers. They fight with one hand public and Knesset reforms that affect their status, and use their positions to block them with the other.”

A Likud spokesman said he made the announcement on behalf of Netanyahu along with Shas leader Aryeh Deri, United Torah Judaism leader Yitzhak Goldknopf, Religious Zionism leader Bezalel Smotrich, Otzma Yehudite leader Itamar Ben Gvir and Noam leader Avi Maoz.

The Quality Government Movement welcomed the attorney general’s warning to Netanyahu, saying the prime minister “must immediately withdraw his hands from destroying Israel’s legal and democratic system.”

Netanyahu’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment, but Justice Minister Levin strongly criticized Baharav-Miara’s letter, accusing it of a conflict of interest.

He noted that some of the proposed reforms would have a general impact on the work of the attorney general and state legal advisers.

“Conflict of interest seems to be a very strange thing. “An elected official is prohibited from talking about reforms in the legal council, but the attorney general and his staff are allowed to block reforms that directly affect their authority,” Levin said.

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In January, Baharav-Miara filed an opinion with the Supreme Court saying that the 2020 conflict-of-interest agreement signed by her predecessor, Avichai Mandelblit, for Netanyahu, is still in effect.

According to the agreement, Netanyahu cannot participate in any issues related to witnesses or other defendants in the trial or legislation that would affect the trial against him.

It also cannot intervene in the status of several high-ranking police and prosecutors, in several areas under the responsibility of the Ministry of Communications, or in the Judicial Selection Committee.

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