New Attorney General Mustn't Be a Pushover for the Netanyahus

The position of AG is the envy and awe of many a politician: They appoint him or her, and s/he can attack them, strip them of their liberty and foil their maneuvers.

Outgoing Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein
Tomer Appelbaum

The title chief of staff is incorrect. It describes not the head of a staff, or headquarters, but rather a commander. The title of police commissioner, a relic from the British police, is likewise inaccurate: here, too, commander is the right word. And the attorney general – in Hebrew, literally the legal adviser to the government – is not in the business of dispensing optional tips and recommendations.

The AG is the decider, nearly the final decider, subject to the rare intervention of the High Court of Justice. For this reason, it is a desirable position, earning the awe and silent envy of politicians: They appoint him or her, and s/he can attack them, strip them of their liberty and foil their maneuvers. Perhaps this is why they support the candidacy of a pushover like Avichai Mendelblit (who was named by a selection committee on Sunday as the only candidate to replace current AG Yehuda Weinstein).

The power of this position in Israel is recognized beyond its borders. In Weinstein’s global wanderings from China to Ethiopia (he has a special fondness for Africa), his hosts treated him as a deputy prime minister – a deputy with the power to dethrone the premier or glue him to his seat.

Weinstein is the first attorney general in more than 50 years – since the end of the David Ben-Gurion era – to spend his entire term under, or over, the same prime minister. He was an effective advocate of the wrong customer: He should have defended the state, not the Netanyahus.

While it is very possible that his moves also angered the ruling family, on balance he went out of his way to allow them the benefit of the doubt. In this manner, the Netanyahu family earned time in power that was spent to the detriment of Israel.

However, on the eve of his retirement, Weinstein was forced to approve the questioning under caution of Sara Netanyahu, in the investigation into alleged financial misconduct in the prime minister’s residences. The move was recommended by two leading police officers, as well as Jerusalem District Attorney Nurit Litman.

The chain reaction threatens to bring down the house. The danger of indictments, which will be left for the next attorney general to approve early on, hovers above Netanyahu’s eagerness to expedite the Likud leadership election, and possibly the Knesset election.

Law enforcement, like most public services in Israel, is crumbling. The “decline of the generations” theory is incorrect, but the generation that exited academia and the military and entered the first floor of the police and prosecution in the decade following the Yom Kippur War, enhancing their performance, took the elevator to the top floor, jumped off the roof and left behind an inferior generation.

Especially problematic is the prosecution, whose conflict with itself and figures in the Justice Department justifies the erosion of public confidence in the integrity, professionalism and skills of police officers and prosecutors. Or, alternatively, of the protectors of the state and its rulers – the civil districts of the prosecution, state prosecutor and attorney general.

Every week, hundreds of rulings, big and small, bubble up to the attorney general’s desk. He is Charlie Chaplin on the assembly line in “Modern Times.” He does not have the private attorney’s luxury of cherry-picking his cases. He must preside over and inspire an immense enterprise. The preferred method is associated with U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower: Let your subordinates – deputies, aides, state and district attorneys – reach compromises, and rule on the remaining disputes. This approach is tolerable only when the echelon below the attorney general does not waste months and years in endless one-upmanship.

Time spent serving on the Supreme Court is a necessary but insufficient prerequisite for being attorney general, because the justices work (very hard) as individuals. Leader, manager, lawyer – this is the correct order of the requirements for the position. And the more the candidate disappoints Netanyahu, the better.