Supreme Court Chief Issues Ultimatum to Netanyahu: Appoint Justice Minister in 48 Hours

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Supreme Court President Esther Hayut at a hearing, last month.
Supreme Court President Esther Hayut at a hearing, last month.Credit: Emil Salman

Israel's top court has given Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu 48 hours to appoint a new justice minister, or else the court will discuss filling the post on its own.

A declaration filed with the High Court of Justice in Netanyahu's name committed to holding a debate on the matter within the given time period – however the declaration said that the prime minister will not commit to filling the position. The declaration was filed during a hearing on petitions demanding that unfilled ministerial positions be filled.

The justice minister post has remained empty since Gantz's term as acting justice minister lapsed on April 1. The appointment of a justice minister is a particularly sensitive issue, given that Netanyahu is currently amid an ongoing corruption trial for bribery, fraud and breach of trust.

Asked whether this response also reflected Alternate Prime Minister Benny Gantz's position, the state's representative said: "No, we weren't able to get a hold of him." Supreme Court President Esther Hayut therefore ruled that the government must discuss the issue and make a decision by Tuesday afternoon – and that if it does not do so, the court will hold its own hearing on the matter.

Benny Gantz attends a meeting at military headquarters in Tel Aviv, last week.Credit: Moti Milrod

Explaining the court's decision, Supreme Court President Esther Hayut said: "We want to give the government a chance to carry these things out by itself." Even if the court orders the government to appoint a justice minister, it cannot force Netanyahu and Gantz to make an appointment if they do not reach an agreement between themselves. The petitioners offered solutions to this issue, such as the court directly placing Gantz in the role or ruling that Gantz alone has the authority to select the appointment. Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit rejected these proposals without offering his own. If no agreement is struck, Mendelblit is expected to address the subject again on Tuesday.

In the wake of the court's decision, Gantz said: "In the [next] cabinet meeting, I will demand that I be appointed permanent justice minister in order to continue protecting democracy, and in accordance with the agreement signed with Likud ... We don't need 48 hours for this. We can have a vote within 48 minutes and end the damage to the rule of law."

In a statement provided to the court on Gantz's behalf earlier in the day by Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit, the alternate prime minister said he had rejected a proposal by Netanyahu’s Likud party to divide the position’s powers among several other ministers so that the appointment of a permanent minister can be further delayed.

Gantz demanded the immediate appointment of a justice minister, while Netanyahu said earlier Sunday that the cabinet will discuss filling the roles next Sunday.

Mendelblit's response from earlier on Sunday came after the High Court demanded an explanation for why some ministerial posts have not been filled, following petitions filed by the anti-corruption Movement for Quality Government and Tohar Hamidot organizations. The court is hearing the petitions on Sunday evening.

According to the coalition agreement signed by Netanyahu and Gantz last year, the two agreed that under their unity government, the justice minister post will be filled by Gantz’s Kahol Lavan party, and the appointment of the minister will not be approved by the cabinet without the agreement of the opposing bloc. Netanyahu has blocked a cabinet vote on approving a new justice minister.

Mendeblit’s position is that a justice minister must be appointed immediately, in light of the potential health risks posed by the expiration of a coronavirus-related regulation limiting in-person courthouse appearances by suspects, which can only be resinstated by the justice minister. Mendelblit is of the opinion that failure to appoint a justice minister endangers the health of detainees, who must now appear in court regardless of the risk of coronavirus infection. He also noted that the plan thrown together by the country’s prison service to minimize this risk has been deemed unacceptable by the Health Ministry as it is insufficient.

Mendelblit also noted that six ministerial posts (including the Justice Ministry) are currently unfilled because, as mandated by law, more than three months have lapsed since each acting minister (serving in such roles in a temporary capacity) was appointed. As noted by the petitioners who are demanding that permanent ministers be appointed to all six of the ministries, the ministries' acting ministers' terms expied over the past few weeks.

Apart from the Justice Ministry, the Communications, Higher Education, Water Resources, Social Equality; and Science, Technology and Space Ministries do not have ministers.

Regarding other ministerial posts that remain unfilled, Mendelblit said it is possible to hold off until next week’s cabinet meeting, as filling them is a clear political issue. This will give politicians more time "to solve the issue at the political level without a judicial determination,” Mendelblit wrote.

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