If the cabinet does not approve a justice minister appointment by midnight Thursday, the post will officially be left empty, a scenario that the attorney general called "a very unusual and politically dire situation" and said will "badly harm the work of the Justice Ministry and the government's functionality."
The term of acting Justice Minister Benny Gantz lapses after April 1. Last Friday, Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit urged Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the Gantz to fill several key ministerial positions, ahead of the expiration of temporary appointments.
In the wake of Mendelblit's plea, Gantz addressed Netanyahu and demanded that a vote be held on the appointment of a permanent justice minister at the cabinet meeting scheduled for Monday. When Netanyahu did not respond, the meeting was canceled.
According to the coalition agreement signed by Netanyahu and Gantz, the two agreed that for the government's term, the justice minister post will be filled by Gantz's Kahol Lavan party, and that the appointment of the minister will not be approved by the cabinet without the agreement of the opposing bloc.
Gideon Sa'ar, a former Likud member turned Netanyahu-challenger, said Thursday, "A nation without a justice minister is another step in the dismantling of the state and its institutions at the hands of Netanyahu... We can only imagine what he would do, God forbid, he is the one to form the next government."
The justice minister's duties include membership in the ministerial cabinet, including the national security cabinet and the committee overseeing the Shin Bet security service. They also lead the legislation committee, as well as the committee that appoints judges. Mendelblit warned in his letter that these committees' work may also suffer from the lack of appointment.
On Wednesday, Gantz asked Mendelblit to examine Netanyahu's fitness to remain prime minister due to his failure to appoint a permanent justice minister. Last week, Deputy Supreme Court President Justice Hanan Melcer ruled that the attorney general has the authority to determine whether the prime minister should be prevented from fulfilling his duties.
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"Netanyahu's refusal to appoint a justice minister is affected by outside considerations related to his trial, and raises questions regarding his fitness to continue serving in his position during this period," Gantz wrote to Medelblit.
He added, "In the past year, the prime minister has tried to harm the proper conduct of the Justice Ministry and the law enforcement system." Gantz noted that Netanyahu delayed the appointments of senior positions in the law enforcement system and made inflammatory statements about its members, and claimed that in doing so, the prime minister "took advantage of his post and power in order to harm the justice system and the public interest."
At this point, Gant wrote, "We have arrived at the peak of this campaign, in which the prime minister decided to prevent the appointment of a justice minister, in direct and blatant contradiction of the public interest."
Gantz also claimed that Netanyahu is violating the conflict of interest agreement that forbids the prime minister from interfering in justice and law enforcement appointments. Last week, the High Court of Justice ruled that Netanyahu – who is standing trial for bribery, fraud and breach of trust – must abide by the agreement drafted by Mendelblit forbidding him from handling these appointments.
According to the conflict of interest agreement, Netanyahu cannot make decisions concerning appointments in the law enforcement and court systems, or be involved in matters concerning witnesses of the other defendants in his cases, or in legislation that could have an influence on the legal proceedings against him. Mendelblit clarified that Netanyahu is also barred from handling such matters through other people.
Earlier this month, Mendelblit told Netanyahu and Gantz that they should appoint replacements for acting ministerial appointments, since the Basic Law of Government does not allow for the extension of their terms. Mendelblit clarified that the Knesset's approval is needed for any permanent ministerial appointments.
A few days after Mendelblit's warning earlier this month, the cabinet was unable to appoint a new communications minister as planned, as Kahol Lavan Chairman and Defense Minister Benny Gantz vetoed it unless a new justice minister was appointed as well – even though the communications post was supposed to go to a member of his own party, Eitan Ginzburg.
Gantz is currently serving as acting justice minister and as acting communications minister. He began serving as acting justice minister after Avi Nissenkorn left the job to join Ron Huldai's The Israelis party, and his term is slated to expire on April 1.