Attorney General Decries Public, Rather Than Legal, Challenge in Netanyahu's Cases

'Ongoing campaign seeks to portray this criminal proceeding in a distorted fashion,' Mendelblit says ahead of the next phase in the prime minister's corruption trial

Netael Bandel
Netael Bandel
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Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit at the Israeli Bar Association's annual conference, September 3, 2020.
Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit at the Israeli Bar Association's annual conference, September 3, 2020.Credit: Meged Gozani
Netael Bandel
Netael Bandel

The main challenge in the criminal cases against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu isn’t his trial, but the accompanying campaign against the law enforcement system, Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit said on Thursday.

“The challenge facing us in this context doesn’t stem from managing the trial, a job entrusted to excellently skilled prosecutors ... but the ongoing campaign that seeks to portray this criminal proceeding in a distorted fashion, as a move stemming, heaven forbid, from extraneous considerations,” Mendelblit said in an address to the Israel Bar Association’s annual conference. “Obviously, this is a lie.”

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“The only legitimate venue for holding a trial is in court,” he added. “There, everyone is equal before the law, and there, the evidence will talk. I vehemently reject the effort to turn defense arguments – which, in a criminal proceeding, belong in court – into claims of political persecution that are thrown out into the public square in a clear attempt to delegitimize the entire process.”

Mendelblit also reiterated his position that there’s no need to declare the prime minister incapacitated during his trial, despite the fact that hearings will be held three days a week starting in January. Nevertheless, he added, this will require Netanyahu to be bound by a very clear conflict of interest agreement.

Knesset Speaker Yariv Levin used his speech at the event to accuse the Supreme Court of “riding roughshod over the Knesset.”

Justice Minister Avi Nissenkorn speaks at the conference, September 3, 2020.
Justice Minister Avi Nissenkorn speaks at the conference, September 3, 2020.Credit: Meged Gozani

“There’s an effort here to take a certain worldview and impose it on the entire public in an undemocratic fashion,” Levin said. “There’s enormous public demand for change in the legal system, but … so far, we haven’t managed to translate this public demand into change in the Knesset.”

His remarks prompted a counterattack from Supreme Court Justice Esther Hayut, who later addressed the conference.

“When criticism is leveled at a senior governmental body, it’s certainly reasonable to expect that it will be substantive, fair and not populist,” she said. “What the Knesset speaker told the conference this morning doesn’t meet this expectation.”

“Difficult decisions are often unpopular, and protecting the rights of individuals who aren’t part of the tribal bonfire is likely to spark opposition,” she added. “But a court that acts out of a desire to please and to win public popularity can’t do its job faithfully.”

Justice Minister Avi Nissenkorn, referring to calls to prohibit the mass demonstrations against Netanyahu, said it was vital to ensure that “Laws meant to preserve our health ... do not serve as tools to undermine civil rights and democratic principles.”

Supreme Court Justice Esther Hayut at the Israeli Bar Association's annual conference, September 3, 2020.
Supreme Court Justice Esther Hayut at the Israeli Bar Association's annual conference, September 3, 2020.Credit: Meged Gozani

He also said that proposals to restrain the Supreme Court’s power through legislation, and specifically one law to let the Knesset override the court, would “Weaken the rule of law.”

He also argued against what he termed “unbridled attacks” and “baseless conspiracy theories” against law enforcement officials and other gatekeepers. “These are deliberate, calculated attempts to undermine the law and justice,” he said.

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