Israel's Top Court Orders Netanyahu to Clarify Objection to Conflict of Interest Deal

Netael Bandel
Netael Bandel
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Netanyahu at the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem, June 2020.
Netanyahu at the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem, June 2020.Credit: Amit Shabi
Netael Bandel
Netael Bandel

The High Court of Justice issued an order to show cause on Tuesday in response to petitions filed with the court that seek to impose conflict of interest limitations on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu due to the criminal charges pending against him.

The court ordered the prime minister and Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit, who drafted a conflict of interest agreement that Netanyahu has refused to sign, to provide legal arguments within 30 days regarding whether Mendelblit’s draft guidelines are binding for the prime minister. The court also ordered Mendelblit to respond to Netanyahu’s arguments regarding the specific provisions of the agreement that the prime minister objects to.

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Mendelblit's guidelines would bar Netanyahu from making decisions pertaining to the appointment of officials in the law enforcement and justice systems, and from dealing with matters related to witnesses or to other defendants in his cases or with legislation in any manner that may bear on the criminal proceedings brought against him.

The prime minister is being tried with bribery, fraud and breach of trust in three separate cases. The trial at the Jerusalem District Court has formally begun, but the witness stage of the proceedings is not due to start until early next year. The decision to file the criminal charges was made by Attorney General Mendelblit. Netanyahu denies any wrongdoing.

The petitions on the alleged conflict of interest were filed by the nonprofit organization Movement for Quality Government as well as a coalition of citizens.

The High Court panel also ordered Netanyahu and Mendelblit to explain whether the conflict of interest guidelines would also be binding for associates of the prime minister, such as Public Security Minister Amir Ohana, who is responsible for the police. The panel also ordered Netanyahu, as well as his coalition partner, Defense Minister Benny Gantz, the leader of the Kahol Lavan party, to explain why they are not advancing the appointment of senior civil service positions that are vacant.

Last week, Mendelblit informed the court of his position that the conflict of interest guidelines are binding for Netanyahu and that the prime minister’s refusal to accept them ran counter to his lawyers’ statements that he had accepted them.

“So long as the prime minister insists that he does not intend to act in accordance with this agreement and its details,” the attorney general wrote, “it appears that there is no alternative to continued litigation of the petitions, including show cause orders in this regard.”

Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit pictured in the wake of the release of his list of suspicions against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in 2019.Credit: Emil Salman

Mendelblit asserts that the High Court has ruled in the past that the attorney general is “the authorized interpreter of the law for the executive branch [of government] and that the attorney general’s stance when it comes to interpretations of the law is binding on all portions of the executive branch and, from their standpoint, reflects existing law.”

About two weeks ago, Netanyahu informed the court that he opposes the conflict of interest agreement. His lawyers have argued that the law “does not grant the attorney general the authority to decide whether there is a ‘personal issue’ [a conflict of interest] on a particular subject.” They contend that the official who should determine whether a conflict of interest exists in this case is the prime minister himself and not Mendelblit.

Among the provisions in Mendelblit’s guidelines to which Netanyahu objects is the ban it would impose on the prime minister’s involvement with the appointment or status of officeholders in the law enforcement system.

“The prime minister believes that there is no basis for these limitations in the section of [the guidelines] dealing with involvement in the appointment process,” the lawyers stated. “This is an issue that is an important part of the [government] coalition agreement and political disagreement in the Knesset, and imposing limits on the prime minister on this issue would harm the carrying out of the will of the voters.”

Netanyahu’s lawyers also objected to a requirement that the prime minister not involve himself in appointments to the Supreme Court — that is, the court that might ultimately hear an appeal by Netanyahu if he is convicted of any of the counts in his criminal case.

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