Israel Justice Minister Vs. the Legal System

The battle over Netanyahu’s innocence or guilt has exposed serious cracks in Israel’s democracy

By Tsvi Sadan | | Topics: Benjamin Netanyahu, Democracy
Photo: Tomer Neuberg/Flash90

The criminal allegations against Prime Minister Netanyahu have gradually evolved into an all-out battle between the state’s law-enforcement civil service and the government. Netanyahu–along with right-wing government ministers, Knesset Members and many others–claim that the cases against him are an attempt to overthrow a duly-elected prime minister. Efforts to criminalize Netanyahu, they say, are nothing short of a coup in which leading journalists are aiding politically-motivated civil servants from the Police, State Attorney’s office, General Attorney’s office and the Supreme Court. 

To ensure Netanyahu’s indictment, say these critics, the legal system has gone so far as to invent new crimes, such as in Case 4000, in which Netanyahu might be charged for bribing telecommunications tycoon Shaul Elovitch in exchange for positive coverage in the online Walla news portal. To ensure indictment, so the claim goes, police investigators and the State Prosecutor stooped so low as to engage in illegal coercive means to recruit state witnesses. The latest scandal bringing this entire affair to a new crescendo involves journalist Amit Segal obtaining police interrogation transcripts of state witness Nir Hefetz, Netanyahu’s former media advisor, that clearly show the employment of illegal investigation methods.

The recent interrogation of Netanyahu himself, along with Likud spokesman Jonathan Urich and current media adviser Ofer Golan, also added fuel to the coup charge. The two were questioned by police just a week or so ago over alleged harassment of state witness Shlomo Filber, harassment that reportedly took place three months ago during the last election cycle. This harassment took the form of loudspeakers being mounted on a vehicle that drove past Filber’s apartment while calling on hims to “man up, tell the truth…” The focus on this relatively innocuous incident by the Police, who during the interrogation confiscated the cellphones of Urich and Golan, infuriated Netanyahu, who decried what he called “a terror attack on democracy.”

All of this, which has been happening under the auspices of State Prosecutor Shai Nitzan and Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit, prompted an unprecedented outburst by Justice Minister Amir Ohana, who convened a special press conference on October 29 to expose what he called “a State Attorney’s Office inside the State Attorney’s Office, which conducts a give-and-take relationship with journalists. There are those who would describe it as a relationship of bribery.”

Ohana continued by explaining that this “inner State Attorney’s Office establishes its timetable in accordance with the political timetable, the elections and coalition negotiations, and leaks investigative material, therefore turning itself into a player on the political stage.” On November 6, speaking from the Knesset podium, Justice Minister Ohana referred to another police document that surfaced on social media exposing that police were investigating a woman who had an affair with Hefetz, and who had nothing to do with anything, only to pressure Hefetz into becoming a state witness. 

Ohana’s opponents insist that by bringing such things to light, he has violated a court-imposed gag order.

Rather than file any kind of charges, however, Shai Nitzan, Avichai Mandelblit and Supreme Court Justice Esther Hayut responded by launching their own attack on Ohana and the entire Likud Party. Hayut said that “such days, unparalleled in our governing history, require us all to stand firm and do our job fearlessly, with responsibility and discretion, as those who are faithful to the rule of law, keeping it, and consolidating its status.” She insisted that “politicalization of the justice system can undermine its foundations as an independent system, to harm the confidence the public has in the judiciary.”

In a joint statement, General Attorney Mandelblit and State Attorney Nitzan said that Ohana’s claim about investigators extorting a key witness was an attempt to “mislead the public” to the benefit of his boss, Netanyahu. For Ohana to call out the police as perpetrators of such deliberate and serious crimes, they insisted, was a “distortion of reality,” and stressed that “the law enforcement system” will continue to be the “protecting wall that shields the Israeli citizens from criminals, crime and corruption. Nothing will deter us from doing our job.”

These statements by top unelected officials, who in essence portrayed themselves as being above reproach, did nothing to alleviate suspicions among the right-wing constituency that top politically-motivated civil servants are employing selective law enforcement in order to effect a desired political outcome.

The Left’s near-sweeping endorsement of Nitzan and Mandelblit also shows that political agendas now take precedence over the type of proper governance essential to any democratic society.

Like it or not, by addressing the problem some now call “the Servants’ Revolt,” Justice Minister Ohana is forcing both the government and the legal system to confront the issue of renegade bureaucrats like Dina Zilber.

In her 2006 book Bureaucracy as PoliticsI, Zilber wrote that “an important aspect [of the legal system] should be the shifting of the governing power toward the center and the ability to make decisive decisions regarding policy from the elected political echelon to the bureaucratic echelon in charge.” Such undemocratic notions did not prevent Zilber from becoming Deputy Attorney General for Administrative and Public Law in 2012. Her contract will end in 2020.

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