AG Bars Netanyahu From Handling Matters in Legal System, Law Enforcement While on Trial

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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks at the opening of his trial, flanked by Likud ministers, at the Jerusalem District Court, May 24, 2020.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks at the opening of his trial, flanked by Likud ministers, at the Jerusalem District Court, May 24, 2020.Credit: Yonatan Zindel / Flash 90

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu may not be involved in any appointments to law enforcement agencies or the courts, any decisions relating to witnesses or co-defendants in his trial, or any legislation that could influence the legal proceedings against him, Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit ruled Monday in a legal opinion. 

The opinion also bars Netanyahu from involvement in several issues under the purview of the Communications Ministry.

The opinion stressed that Netanyahu is barred not only from personal involvement in any of those issues, but also from working to influence these matters via other government officials who have authority over them, such as Public Security Minister Amir Ohana.

Mendelblit’s opinion is final and doesn’t require Netanyahu’s consent, though Deputy Attorney General Dina Zilber had earlier held negotiations with Netanyahu’s lawyers that resulted in some of the restrictions being softened compared to an earlier draft. For instance, the final version contains a shorter list of people in whose affairs Netanyahu is forbidden to be involved, while a provision that initially barred him from any involvement in the work of the Judicial Appointments Committee now forbids his involvement only in the appointment of judges who might hear his cases – namely, appointments to the Jerusalem District Court, which is conducting the trial, and the Supreme Court, which would hear any appeal.

The opinion, which was drafted by Zilber with Mendelblit’s approval, notes that a sitting prime minister who is on trial is an unprecedented situation that requires unique restrictions. It therefore bars Netanyahu from involvement “in any matter that has a substantive connection to his trial or to anything that will be discussed there,” since in all such matters he would have a blatant conflict of interests.

For the same reason, it bars him from involvement in the appointment or promotion of numerous law enforcement officials, including the state prosecutor, police commissioner, deputy attorney general for criminal affairs, head of the police’s investigations department or head of the police’s Lahav 433 unit, as well as any police officers or Israel Securities Authority investigators who were involved in investigating Netanyahu’s cases.

The opinion doesn’t bar Netanyahu from involvement in choosing the cabinet and Knesset members who occupy four of the Judicial Appointments Committee’s nine seats, since that is “part of the political work of forming a [governing] coalition.” Nevertheless, it says, “he must refrain from any influence on the way these representatives do their jobs with regard to judges on the Supreme Court and the Jerusalem District Court.”

Netanyahu may not make any decision that would affect either prosecution or defense witnesses, the opinion says. But if he feels his involvement in such a decision is unavoidable, then he must seek guidance from Mendelblit on how to handle the problem.

Finally, he is barred from involvement in any legislation that could alter the laws relevant to his own cases “or the interpretation given the crimes of which he is accused,” the opinion says.

Netanyahu was charged with bribery, fraud and breach of trust in three criminal cases in November 2019, becoming the first ever sitting prime minister of Israel to be accused of such charges. His trial began in May, and its evidence phase will start in January 2021. 

In September, Mendelblit held consultations regarding whether the prime minister should be disqualified, because of what the attorney general sees as Netanyahu's use of the office for his personal benefit as a defendant in three corruption cases.

At a conference of Israel’s Bar Association, Mendelblit said Netanyahu does not need to step aside as prime minster, technically speaking, as the timetable of his trial does not require him to spend much time in court.

Mendelblit did not address disqualifying Netanyahu on principle, which would stem from the prime minister's attempts to publically tarnish and harm decision-makers overseeing his case, or to sabotage the legal proceedings.

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