AG says Netanyahu can’t deal with judicial shakeup amid trial; he rejects her stance

Attorney General Gali Baharav-Miara told Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Wednesday that he has a conflict of interest due to his ongoing corruption trial and cannot join his government’s efforts to radically reform the legal and judicial system.

In a High Court filing filed hours later, Netanyahu said he considered Bahar-Miara’s position on the matter “unacceptable.” She also asked for two weeks to respond fully to her letter.

The Attorney General’s statement drew a sharp response from the heads of all coalition party leaders, who in a joint statement said it flew in the face of the government’s “unclear mandate” during the election.

Baharav-Miara’s warning follows a petition to the High Court last month by the Movement for Quality Control in Israel, which asked the attorney general to draw up an updated conflict of interest provision for Netanyahu once he is back in power as prime minister.

On Thursday, Haaretz daily reported that the threat level for Baharav-Miara had been raised to the highest possible, citing “genuine concern” that security agencies could harm her. According to the report, the security around the Attorney General will be expanded.

In her letter, made public on Thursday, Baharav-Miara wrote to Netanyahu: “In your role as prime minister, you must refrain from initiatives related to the legal system within the framework of so-called ‘legal reforms’.

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“This is because of issues related to legal action against you and reasonable suspicion of a conflict of interest between the legislative initiatives and their important components” as the government moves forward in its legal reform package, she added.

“This includes any direct or indirect actions or instructions through others, including contacting officials serving in your office as political appointees,” the attorney general added.

MK Simcha Rothman, chairman of the Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee, leads a committee hearing on his sweeping legal reform agenda with committee lawyer Gur Bligh, legal counsel, on February 1, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The government’s proposed legal overhaul includes legislation that would give the government an automatic majority on the committee that selects judges for every court in the country, including the Supreme Court.

If Netanyahu is found guilty of the corruption charges against him in the trial currently underway in the Jerusalem District Court, he will be able to appeal the conviction to the Supreme Court, where his government is likely to make appointments during its tenure.

The prime minister said in an interview with CNN on Tuesday that he is willing to “hear feedback” on the sweeping legal reform package his government is proposing, indicating he will be involved in how the reforms are formulated and move forward.

The heads of the coalition parties issued a joint statement condemning the attorney general’s letter, saying that her position “totally contradicts the clear mandate we received from the citizens of Israel in the election” and that they “completely rejected” her position.

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There is no connection between the legal reforms of [Justice Minister] The question of Yariv Levin, whose goal is to restore democracy to Israel, and the question of the prime minister,” they continued, even though Levin tied the two in a speech to the Knesset last month.

“Those who have a conflict of interest are actually legal advisers. On the one hand, they are fighting reforms that affect their status in public and in the Knesset, and on the other hand, they are using their positions to thwart them.

A Likud spokesman said the statement was issued on Netanyahu’s behalf along with Shas leader Aryeh Deri, United Torah Judaism leader Yitzhak Goldknopf, Religious Zionism leader Bezalel Smotrich, Otzma Yehudit leader Itamar Ben Gvir and Noam leader Avi Maoz.

The prime minister welcomed the attorney general’s warning to Netanyahu, saying he “must immediately remove his hands from destroying Israel’s legal and democratic system.”

Netanyahu’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment, but Justice Minister Levin strongly criticized Baharav-Miara’s letter and accused her of a conflict of interest.

He noted that some of the proposed reforms would affect the position of Attorney General and the position of government legal advisers more generally.

“A conflict of interest seems very strange. “An elected official is prohibited from talking about reforms for legal advice, but the attorney general and her staff are allowed to block reforms that directly affect their powers,” Levin said.

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In January, Baharav-Miara filed an opinion with the High Court that a conflict of interest arrangement by her predecessor Avichai Mandelblit in 2020 for Netanyahu still applies.

Under the arrangement, Netanyahu cannot be involved in any matters affecting witnesses or other defendants at his trial, or any legislation affecting legal proceedings against him.

Nor can he interfere in any issue related to the rank of several top police and prosecution officers in several sectors under the responsibility of the Ministry of Communications or in the Judicial Selection Committee.

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