Israeli Cabinet Approves Aliyah of 400 Ethiopians, Probe of Police Misconduct

Attorney general opposes establishment of committees, arguing it may 'appear to be motivated by election campaign interests'

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Benjamin Netanyahu and Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit, right, at a cabinet meeting in Jerusalem, February 9, 2020.
Benjamin Netanyahu and Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit, right, at a cabinet meeting in Jerusalem, February 9, 2020. Credit: Emil Salman

The cabinet on Sunday unanimously approved bringing some 400 Ethiopian immigrants to Israel, as well as the establishment of a committee to probe the Justice Ministry’s unit for the investigation of police officers. Both moves came over the objections of Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit, who raised the suspicion that the initiatives aimed to get Ethiopian Israelis to vote Likud in the March 2 election. 

The attorney general said there was a legal impediment to a transition government making decisions of this nature, and also objected to forming the investigative committee on the grounds that it would inordinately restrict the actions of the next government.

The committee was the brainchild of Justice Minister Amir Ohana, and was spurred by the protests that followed the shooting death of Solomon Teka by an off-duty policeman in June. Ohana said the committee was necessary because the police investigation unit, known by its Hebrew acronym Mahash, could not adequately audit the police so long as it and the Israel Police were subordinate to the state prosecution.

Before the vote, Ministers Gilad Erdan and Yariv Levin argued with Mendelblit, with Erdan saying, “You are castrating the cabinet. If this was not a prosecution agency then it would be allowed to do this during an election period.” Mendelblit sought to halt the debate on the issue, but in the end the resolution was passed over his objections.

There was another argument with Mendelblit while discussing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s request to expedite the immigration of some 400 Falash Mura – Ethiopians of Jewish descent who converted to Christianity – before the election. Mendelblit argued that the staff work on the issue was not finished, and there was no data regarding how many people in Ethiopia the proposal applied to. “Naturally this is a benefit to a certain group of voters,” he said, and it “looks as if it is motivated by election campaign considerations.”

If there are petitions filed with the High Court of Justice against either of these proposals, Mendelblit is expected to refuse to defend the government in court. If that happens, Ohana will presumably demand independent representation by a private attorney, to which Mendelblit would almost certainly object, as has happened in the past.

According to the cabinet resolution setting up the investigative committee, the panel will seek “to look into complaints regarding the behavior, organizational structure, and the subordination of Mahash to the state prosecution.” It will be headed by retired Rehovot Magistrate’s Court Judge Haran Fainstein, and its other members will be Prof. Avraham Diskin and Prof. Rinat Kitai-Sangero.

The resolution states that the committee will examine the way complaints submitted to Mahash are handled, the department’s work procedures, the way investigations are conducted and the department’s existing control and oversight mechanisms.
The committee was authorized to submit a report with its findings to the justice minister within four months, after which it would be released to the public. However, the committee could decide not to publish parts of the report if it believes this would “put state security at risk, undermine someone’s safety or privacy or for any other reason that it will explain.” 

In the coming weeks, Mendelblit is expected to release the findings of a similar inquiry made by his office into Mahash. Last June, he and acting police chief Moti Cohen set up a joint task force to examine how Mahash and police handle complaints from Ethiopian Israelis. Last month the panel’s conclusions were presented to Mendelblit and Cohen, and it was agreed that the final report would be submitted to the two in the coming month.

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