Israel's top court froze the appointment of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's pick for justice minister Tuesday, after the attorney general ruled the appointment "illegal."
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Supreme Court President Esther Hayut said that that the debate will continue tomorrow regarding the larger issue of the unfilled justice minister post. In their ruling, the court wrote, "the minister Ofir Akunis cannot serve in the role of justice minister until the court rules otherwise."
The court convened earlier in the evening to discuss the appointment of a new Justice Minister, as the caretaker cabinet remains at loggerheads over Benny Gantz’s demand to keep the portfolio rather than give it to Netanyahu’s Likud party.
Israeli ministers failed to meet Tuesday's court-mandated deadline to fill the post. As per a Sunday ruling, the High Court of Justice held a hearing on the matter, after a heated cabinet meeting adjourned with no breakthrough in negotiations between coalition partners and political rivals Gantz and Netanyahu.
The cabinet did vote in favor of appointing Likud’s Ofir Akunis for justice minister, in a proposal pushed by Netanyahu, but Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit declared the vote invalid, as the nomination wasn’t on the agenda before the meeting began and Gantz did not agree to hold the vote.
"This vote is illegal," Mendelblit told ministers. Every minister from Gantz’s Kahol Lavan objected to the vote.
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The appointment of a justice minister is a particularly sensitive issue, given Netanyahu’s ongoing corruption trial for bribery, fraud and breach of trust.
In a letter sent to Netanyahu and Gantz after the meeting, Mendelblit wrote that "the cabinet knowingly and intentionally acted in an illegal manner," and that Akunis was not appointed justice minister.
Mendelblit criticized the fact that he was not permitted to voice his legal opinion on the proposition to nominate Akunis in real time.
The attorney general also told the High Court that the government has a legal obligation to appoint a justice minister immediately, and that there was "no escaping" the court from ordering the government to do so without delay.
Gantz announced ahead of Tuesday’s meeting he would like to be appointed justice minister, a position that has remained vacant since his term as acting minister lapsed on April 1. During the meeting, others were also nominated but no agreement was reached.
'Approaching the brink of anarchy'
In a live address on Tuesday evening, Kahol Lavan chairman Benny Gantz addressed the day's turbulent events. "We said in April that Netanyahu would hatch a plot, and today it came to pass. We promised to prevent it, and that's what we're doing."
"The prime minister tried to trample the rule of law in a planned and directed manner. He tried and he will fail," he said.
Opposition leader Yair Lapid issued a statement following the ordeal, arguing it serves as “a reminder there’s no chance [Netanyahu] will fulfill his commitments under any agreement,” in a warning to other political leaders as coalition talks continue, with Netanyahu having six days left before his mandate to form a government expires.
Gideon Sa'ar, who broke away from Netanyahu's Likud in the last election cycle, said that the saga "is further evidence of the vital need to change the government."
Yamina head Naftali Bennett, who is negotiating forming a coalition with both the pro- and anti-Netanyahu blocs, said that "Israel is approaching the brink of anarchy."
"We don't have another country," he added. "I call on everyone… to come to their senses and to show national responsibility. The State of Israel is in urgent need of a stable, functioning government."
Netanyahu said at the start of the meeting Tuesday he hopes the High Court would grant the government a further 48-hour extension to “reach a mutually agreed upon solution.” He said, however, that they will “convene and decide straight away” on the appointment should justices order so, but “I’m trying to prevent an unnecessary clash,” he added.
Likud ministers claimed at the meeting that the coalition agreement with Gantz’s Kahol Lavan has expired after Israel’s March election, and therefore Netanyahu can appoint anyone for justice minister. Under the Kahol Lavan and Likud’s coalition, the Justice Minister position is reserved for Kahol Lavan. The agreement, contrary to Likud’s argument, remains in effect until a new government is formed.
Even if the court orders the government to appoint a permanent justice minister, there is little it can do if Gantz and Netanyahu keep bickering about it. In such a case, solving the issue may be down to Attorney General Mendelblit.
Mendeblit’s position is that a justice minister must be appointed immediately, in light of the potential health risks posed by an expired coronavirus-related regulation, which can only be reinstated by the justice minister.
The attorney general is of the opinion that this failure endangers the health of detainees, who must now appear in court even at the risk of coronavirus infection. He also noted that the plan to minimize this risk, which was thrown together by the country’s prison service and deemed unacceptable by the Health Ministry, is ineffective.
Mendelblit also noted that five other ministerial posts are currently unfilled because more than three months have lapsed since each had an acting minister, serving in such roles in a temporary capacity, was appointed.
Apart from the Justice Ministry, the communications, higher education, water resources, social equality, and science, technology and space ministries still await permanent appointments. Mendelblit also said that this is the longest in Israel’s history cabinet positions have been left vacant.