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

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 interest due to his ongoing corruption trial.

In a filing to the High Court submitted hours later, Netanyahu said he viewed Baharav-Miara’s position on the matter as “unacceptable.” He also asked for two weeks to fully answer her letter.

The attorney general’s statement drew a sharp response from the heads of all the coalition party leaders, who said in a joint statement that it was against the “unequivocal 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 interest arrangement for Netanyahu after he takes office as prime minister again in January.

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

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

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“This is due to the reasonable suspicion of a conflict of interests between matters related to the legal proceedings against you, and the set 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.

Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee Chairman MK Simcha Rothman leads a committee questioning on his far-reaching legal reform agenda with committee lawyer Gur Bligh’s legal adviser, February 1, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Included in the government’s proposed legal review is legislation that would give the government an automatic majority in the commission that chooses judges for every court in the country, including the Supreme Court.

If Netanyahu were to be convicted of the corruption charges against him in the trial currently taking place in the Jerusalem District Court, he could appeal the conviction to the Supreme Court, to which his government is likely to make appointments during his term.

The prime minister said in an interview with CNN on Tuesday that he is 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 formulated and advanced.

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

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“There is no relationship between the legal reform of [Justice Minister] Yariv Levin whose goal is to restore democracy to Israel, and the affairs of the prime minister,” they continued, although Levin connected the two during a speech to the Knesset last month.

“Those who have a conflict of interest are actually the legal advisors. With one hand they fight the reforms in public and in the Knesset, which will affect their status, and with the other hand they exploit their positions to prevent it.

A Likud spokesman said the statement was released on behalf of Netanyahu, along 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 having a conflict of interest herself.

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 talk about reforms to legal advice is prohibited, but the attorney general and her staff have the right to block reforms that directly affect their powers,” said Levin.

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In January, Baharav-Miara filed an opinion at the Court of Appeal stating that a conflict of interest agreement drawn up by her predecessor Avichai Mandelblit in 2020 for Netanyahu is 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 affect the legal proceedings against him.

He also cannot intervene in any matters related to the status of several top police officers and prosecutors, in several fields under the responsibility of the Ministry of Communications, or in the Judicial Selection Committee.

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