Netanyahu U-turn on Justice Minister Exposes 'Illusion of Functioning' State, President Says

Jonathan Lis
Jonathan Lis
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President Reuvan Rivlin speaks at the Knesset, in early April.
President Reuvan Rivlin speaks at the Knesset, in early April.Credit: Alex Kolomoisky/Pool via AP
Jonathan Lis
Jonathan Lis

President Reuven Rivlin harshly criticized on Wednesday the cabinet for its handling of the appointment of a permanent justice minister, which has brought Israel to the brink of a constitutional crisis.

"It's been a long while that we've been living with the illusion of a constitutionally functioning [state] between one election cycle and the next," Rivlin said during an interfaith meeting with religious leaders and foreign ambassadors on the outskirts of Jerusalem.

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He said that a heated cabinet meeting that ended Tuesday with no compromise on the ministerial appointment, amid an ongoing political stalemate in the wake of Israel's March election, was "another fortification that came crashing down."

Kahol Lavan leader Benny Gantz on Wednesday was eventually appointed justice minister for the tenure of the interim government, but only after the High Court of Justice froze Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's pick for the post in an "illegal" Tuesday vote.

Netanyahu has until Tuesday when his mandate to form a coalition expires. Should he fail to do so, President Rivlin will have to decide whether to grant him an extension, tap another lawmaker for it or hand the decision over to the Knesset.

"We must go back to the foundations, by which the government serves the citizens, rather than the citizens serving the government," Rivlin said.

In a proposal pushed by Netanyahu, the cabinet voted on the appointment of Likud's Ofir Akunis to the position on Tuesday, but the vote was deemed illegal by the attorney general.

The appointment of a justice minister, a position that has remained vacant since his term as acting minister lapsed on April 1, is a particularly sensitive issue, given Netanyahu’s ongoing corruption trial for bribery, fraud and breach of trust.

While the cabinet did vote in favor of appointing Akunis, they did so in a surprise vote over the objections of Gantz, and all the Kahol Lavan ministers. Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit declared the vote invalid and said that it violated both the coalition agreement between Gantz and Netanyahu and the Basic Law on Government.

"This vote is illegal," Mendelblit told ministers. 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.

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