Israel's Attorney General Says Attacks on His Deputy Are Meant to Undermine His Office

Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked demanded that Mendelblit fire Zilber, over her criticism of the 'cultural-loyalty bill' that aims to deny state funds to cultural institutions deemed disloyal to the state

Israeli Minister of Justice Ayelet Shaked and Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit at the Haifa University Law Conference.
Rami Chelouche

Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit said Thursday the justice minister’s attacks on his deputy Dina Zilber for allegedly being disloyal to the state were intended to “undermine the attorney general’s office.”

On Tuesday, Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked demanded that Mendelblit fire Zilber, one of a handful of deputy attorneys general. Shaked said she would bar Zilber from representing the ministry in the Knesset and elsewhere over her criticism of the “cultural-loyalty bill” that aims to deny state funds to cultural institutions deemed disloyal to the state.

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Other politicians on the right have followed suit in harshly criticizing Zilber and demanding her dismissal.

“This is something I can’t agree to, and I don’t think anyone, not even the justice minister, wants to damage this office,” Mendelblit said at a conference marking the justice system’s 70th anniversary.

Shaked, who spoke ahead of Mendelblit at the conference at the University of Haifa, said about her demand to have Zilber dismissed: “I don’t want to hear about values, I want professional legal advice.”

Mendelblit said in response: “I also want professional legal advice. You can’t separate [this] from values. There isn’t some clear line … there’s no black and white. It’s not mathematics. The thing I fear most is for politics to enter our office. Part of our DNA is to protect human rights and values.”

He added: “I’m not going to hold a kangaroo court. I’ll talk to Dina. We’ll meet, sort things out. Some pretty horrific things came up on social media – incitement, attempts to harm her personally, extremely offensive things. We must reject that wholly and clearly.”

Mendelblit said part of the attorney general’s independence is to decide who represents him and where. But “this doesn’t contradict my having to help the government implement its policy. Where there are disagreements I express my position.”

Shaked said government officials could not speak against her in the Knesset.

“When an attorney general decides to make political speeches, and in the Knesset, where he should represent the government’s position, I think it’s a dangerous process that cuts the branch the attorney general is sitting on,” Shaked said. “Every person must decide if he’s a politician or a public servant.”

Contrary to reports that the investigation into Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was winding down, Mendelblit said there was still work to do. “I won’t talk on my watch about evidence while the case is still under investigation,” he said. “It’s more important to me that the investigation is thorough and we … get to the truth.”

Asked if the public didn’t have a right to know the truth, especially with an election due within the next 12 months, Mendelblit said: “There’s another interest in democracy, to investigate to find out the truth.”

As he put it, “I don’t think anyone would want me to seal anyone’s fate while the investigation is still ongoing …. This is a basic principle in democracy and a basic human right. I’m aware of the public’s interest to know what’s going on with the prime minister … and yet there are interests I see as fundamental, and that’s our professionalism: to withstand such pressures.”

Dorit Beinisch, a former Supreme Court president and state prosecutor, told Reshet Bet radio Thursday that Zilber’s stance was not a political opinion, and that it wasn’t the justice minister’s job to decide whether Zilber’s conduct was appropriate.

She said Shaked’s call for Zilber’s removal was an attempt to intimidate the so-called gatekeepers. “It’s distorted to turn attorneys general and legal advisers into public employees banned from criticizing cabinet proposals or positions on a professional and moral basis,” Beinisch said.