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Israeli justice minister accused of rigging appointments to shield Netanyahu

Row erupts over choice of state prosecutor, with attorney-general arguing Amir Ohana's pick could be biased toward indicted prime minister
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) raises his hand while sitting alongside Justice Minister Amir Ohana (L) during a Likud party meeting at the Knesset (AFP)

The struggle between Israel’s government and judicial system exploded into another very public spat this week over the appointment of a new state prosecutor, with corruption charges against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the heart of the dispute.

Justice Minister Amir Ohana’s appointment of Central District Deputy Prosecutor Orly Ben-Ari Ginsberg’s as new state prosecutor on Tuesday began a war of words between him and Avichai Mendelblit, the attorney-general who disagreed with the choice.

Mendelblit, who argued that Ben-Ari Ginsberg is too inexperienced for the role, then appealed to Israel’s High Court, which on Wednesday froze the appointment.

Ben-Ari Ginsberg’s suitability compared to the names offered by Mendelblit was, at least at first, publicly the cause of the row.

'The appointment of Attorney Ben-Ari Ginsberg to the office of state prosecutor exceeds, in an extreme way, the scope of what is reasonable'

- Avichai Mendelblit, attorney-general

"My legal position is that under the circumstances, the appointment of Attorney Ben-Ari Ginsberg to the office of state prosecutor exceeds, in an extreme way, the scope of what is reasonable, and therefore there is a legal impediment to its approval," Mendelblit wrote to the justice minister.

However, looming over proceedings are the criminal charges Mendelblit has levelled against Netanyahu and the government’s attempts to weaken the power of the judiciary.

Last month, the prime minister was charged with breach of trust, fraud and bribery.

Netanyahu rejects the accusations, calling them politically motivated, and Mendelblit has suggested that the new state prosecutor should be vetted by the attorney-general in such a febrile atmosphere.

At outgoing State Prosecutor Shai Nitzan’s farewell ceremony on Tuesday night, the attorney-general said he and the outgoing state prosecutor had both faced ferocious attacks as they worked on Netanyahu’s indictment.

"In recent times, we have often found ourselves under unworthy and obtrusive attacks because of decisions related to the investigation files in the prime minister's case," he said, adding that Nitzan’s replacement must be seen as totally impartial as the case against Netanyahu progresses.

The legal petition upheld by the High Court said Ben-Ari Ginsberg’s appointment was intended to weaken "the gatekeepers and elements of the law enforcement system” related to Netanyahu’s case.

Close Netanyahu ally

Ohana is a close Netanyahu ally, and his appointment in June was widely seen as a way for the prime minister to use the Justice Ministry to combat the charges. 

The justice minister now has 10 days to appeal the decision, and argue against the legal petition that states Ben-Ari Ginsberg’s appointment was “unreasonably radical”.

In Ben-Ari Ginsberg’s defence, Ohana denied that the attorney would in any way be biased towards Netanyahu.

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"Mendelblit's statement that the appointment is extremely unreasonable is in itself extremely unreasonable,” the minister told Army Radio.

“I did not bring a person who is a stranger to the system, nor did I bring a person who knows Netanyahu. As far as I know, she has never met him."

Outgoing State Prosecutor Nitzan officially retired the position on Monday. As Israel has an interim government pending elections in March - the third polls within a year - no permanent replacement can be appointed.

Ben-Ari Ginsberg would have held only the title of interim state prosecutor until Benjamin Netanyahu is able to form a government, after which she would most likely be made permanent.

If Netanyahu’s rival Benny Gantz succeeds in becoming premier, however, her position would be uncertain.