As deadline passes, Israel is left without a justice minister

Israel was left without a justice minister as of early Friday, after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu — who is on trial for alleged corruption — refused to enable a permanent appointment for the post.

The development will have a broad impact on a range of government functions and means that Israel’s transitional government will struggle to introduce new laws — including any relating to the coronavirus pandemic — as government bills begin their journey to legislation in the Justice Ministry and with the approval of its minister, who also chairs the Ministerial Committee for Legislation.

Any extradition orders, to or from the country, cannot be processed as they require the signature of the justice minister. In addition, other ministers will face limitations due to not being able to collaborate with a justice minister, the Kan public broadcaster reported on Thursday.

Blue and White party chair Benny Gantz, who is also defense minister, has served as interim justice minister for the past three months, but his term expired at midnight. Gantz replaced previous justice minister Avi Nissenkorn, formerly of his Blue and White party, who resigned.

Under Israeli law, an interim minister who replaces one who left the position can only retain the role for three months. As result, even extending Gantz’s term was not an option.

Defense Minister Benny Gantz and then-Justice Minister Avi Nissenkorn visit the Jerusalem Municipality on November 10, 2020 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

In the hours before the midnight deadline, critics castigated Netanyahu and accused him of placing his own needs before those of the country. The vacancy of the key office comes days before Netanyahu’s corruption trial begins in earnest, and amid political turmoil following last week’s fourth inconclusive election in two years.

New Hope party leader Gideon Sa’ar, who has vowed to only join a coalition that seeks to remove Netanyahu from power, tweeted that the situation in which there is no justice minister is “the continuation of the dismantling of the country and its institutions by Netanyahu.”

Gideon Sa’ar, head of the New Hope political party, speaks during a Channel 12 News conference in Jerusalem on March 7, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

“If this is what he dares to do in the midst of these sensitive days — one can only imagine what he will do here if God forbid he builds a new government,” said Sa’ar, who left Netanyahu’s Likud party to form New Hope.

Former justice minister Nissenkorn, who resigned from the post in December when he split from Blue and White to join the now-defunct The Israelis party, said Thursday that the lack of a permanent minister would have “tragic” consequences.

“The absence of a justice minister is a warning sign for Israeli democracy, a low point,” he told Army Radio.

Former state prosecutor Shai Nitzan told Army Radio: “It is unbelievable that I need to explain why Israel needs a justice minister. There are things that only the minister is authorized to do.”

Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit, left, and outgoing state prosecutor Shai Nitzan attend a farewell ceremony held for Nitzan in Jerusalem, on December 18, 2019. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

The Israel Democracy Institute think tank warned in a statement that Netanyahu’s refusal to appoint a justice minister is “part of a set of actions designed to weaken the law enforcement system.” Accusing Netanyahu of acting in a conflict of interest, IDI said the prime minister is no longer fulfilling his role and must take a leave of absence.

In a bid to force Netanyahu’s hand, the Movement for Quality Government watchdog group filed a petition Thursday with the High Court calling on it to order a cabinet vote on a new justice minister.

Under the coalition deal between Netanyahu and Gantz — which remains in effect until a new government is sworn in following last week’s election — the Justice Ministry is under the purview of Gantz’s bloc of the government. He can select who he wishes to head the portfolio, and Netanyahu has no say in the matter. However, Netanyahu can block a cabinet vote on such an appointment, which he has apparently been doing for months now.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks at the annual Jerusalem Conference of Channel 20 in Jerusalem, March 16, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Speaking Wednesday night, Gantz castigated Netanyahu for blocking the appointment and said he had written to the attorney general to ask whether the premier should be required to step down as prime minister over the decision.

The prime minister’s move to leave Israel without a justice minister represented a “clear instance of conflict of interest,” said Gantz, intimating that Netanyahu was interfering in the state legal establishment for personal reasons because he is on trial.

The evidentiary phase of Netanyahu’s trial for alleged bribery, fraud and breach of trust begins on Monday, with hearings scheduled to be held three times a week, Mondays through Wednesdays from 9 a.m. until 3:30 p.m.

Netanyahu, the first Israeli premier to be indicted while in office, denies any wrongdoing and has railed against the courts, prosecution and media for what he terms a “witch hunt.” He alleges the state prosecution, police, media and opposition are framing him in an attempted political coup.

Gantz suggested Wednesday that the failure to appoint a permanent justice minister could be part of an effort to impact the trial.

He said he had sent a letter to Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit asking him to examine Netanyahu’s capability to continue serving as prime minister under the circumstances.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, speaks with then-cabinet secretary Avichai Mandelblit during the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem, September 21, 2014. (AP/Menahem Kahana, Pool/File)

Last week, Mandelblit sent Netanyahu a letter warning that “a situation in which the Justice Ministry is left without a permanent minister will cause severe damage to the ministry’s work and the functioning of the government.”

Netanyahu cannot serve as justice minister himself due to the criminal charges against him, and last week the High Court of Justice ruled that he must abide by conflict of interest rules laid out by Mandelblit preventing him from appointing senior law enforcement and justice officials.

Under Mandelblit’s arrangement, Netanyahu cannot be involved in any matters that affect witnesses or other defendants in his graft trial, or in legislation that would impact the legal proceedings against him.

The row over the justice minister saw Gantz call off a special cabinet meeting earlier this week that was set to approve a budget for further purchases of coronavirus vaccines. Netanyahu had refused to bring up for a vote Gantz’s choice for justice minister and in response, Gantz refused to convene the cabinet to discuss the vaccine acquisition.

In his letter last week Mandelblit noted that there are several other government offices that are being headed by interim ministers since the coalition broke down late last year. These include the Communications Ministry, Water and Higher Education Ministry, the Social Equality Ministry, the Welfare Ministry and the Science and Technology Ministry. These were all offices headed by ministers from the Blue and White-led bloc, which faced a flood of resignations after elections were called.

The interim posts are set to expire in the coming weeks and, similar to the justice minister post, cannot be extended. Earlier this month Mandelblit warned Netanyahu and Gantz that they must quickly appoint permanent ministers to those positions.

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