High Court Suspends Israeli Justice Minister's Bid to Appoint 'Unqualified' Director General

Ophir Cohen was tapped by Amir Ohana to replace Emi Palmor, the director general for the past five years, who was dismissed a few weeks after Ohana took office in June

Justice Minister Amir Ohana at the Knesset.
Emil Salman

The High Court of Justice on Sunday temporarily froze the appointment of Ophir Cohen as director general of the Justice Ministry.

Cohen was tapped by Justice Minister Amir Ohana, and is due to replace Emi Palmor, the director general for the past five years, who was dismissed a few weeks after Ohana took office in June. At the moment, the ministry is operating without a director general.

In response to a petition filed by the Movement for Quality Government challenging the appointment, Supreme Court Justice George Kara issued a temporary order suspending the appointment until a decision is made on the merits of the petition. Kara also ordered that the case be heard as soon as possible.

Earlier in the day on Sunday, the Senior Appointments Committee of the Civil Service Commission, approved Cohen’s appointment, after Ohana said that he had not found a civil servant in whom he has complete trust.

Following the committee's approval of Cohen's appointment, Ohana said: “I have known Ophir for almost 20 years and I have full confidence in him and his abilities. He has varied qualifications, great knowledge and managerial experience that the public system in general and the Justice Ministry in particular will benefit from.”

Ohana is the only minister of the five appointed following the April 9 election who has sought to replace the director general of his ministry. After Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu failed to form a government after the April election, the Knesset voted to dissolve itself and hold new elections on September 17.

Ophir Cohen.
Guy Keren

Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit has issued a directive stating the replacement of a ministry director general should be avoided during the  election campaign to prevent “government instability, defective functioning of the ministry and even the exploitation of governing powers.” 

According to regulations, an exception can be made if the civil service commissioner “was convinced that there is no way of avoiding the replacement of the director general, for the purpose of proper functioning of the ministry.”

Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit in fact approved Palmor’s dismissal. He wrote that “there are legal problems” with the step, but no legal grounds to prevent it. The director general of a government ministry is a “position of trust” – one that the minister can fill without posting the position inviting applications from potential candidates.

By virtue of the position, the director general of the Justice Ministry is a member of the committee that will choose the next state prosecutor. Incumbent State Prosecutor Shai Nitzan is expected to conclude his tenure in December, and the committee choosing his replacement usually convenes about a month before the appointment of the successor.

Ohana responded to the filing of the petition by saying: "Col. (res.) Ophir Cohen is one of the worthiest appointments among the government ministries. This is a man who contributed his best years in the service of the security of the State of Israel and bears the high cost on his body. He has suitable legal and managerial capabilities as determined by the Senior Appointments Committee of the Civil Service Commission, which considered his appointment with great precision. I hope and expect that the High Court of Justice will have the same impression.”

The Movement for Quality Government, which filed the High Court petitition, claims that the attorney general’s guidelines require that the replacement of a ministry director general during an election campaign have the approval of the Civil Service commissioner, who must be persuaded that the situation in the ministry is so extreme that it couldn’t function otherwise.

Impossible to accomplish anything?

Not only was such approval not sought before the former director general, Emi Palmor, was dismissed, but the prevailing circumstances will make it nearly impossible for Cohen to accomplish anything during his tenure, the Movement for Quality Government claims.

“There is no logic in approving the appointment of a director general from the outside who is not a civil servant and is not a senior jurist with superior management skills for such a short period,” the movement said. “Cohen’s resume, though impressive, doesn’t point to any special ability to manage a ministry, certainly not such a large, sensitive and difficult ministry.”

Among Ohana's other appointments since taking office was the hiring of his cousin, Narkis Alfi, as his bureau chief. Alfi was until recently bureau chief to the director general of the Economy and Industry Ministry.