Mandelblit warns lack of justice minister has ‘far-reaching’ consequences

Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit on Thursday sent a letter to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Benny Gantz, cautioning that the continued lack of a justice minister will have “far-reaching consequences from a public health point of view.”

Gantz was acting justice minister until last month, when his three-month temporary term — which cannot be extended — ended because Netanyahu refused to appoint a permanent minister. Netanyahu cannot be a minister due to his trial on corruption charges.

In the letter, Mandelblit said that starting April 21, thousands of detainees and prisoners will have to be physically brought to court for arrest and remand hearings, since video conference won’t be allowed due to the lack of a minister. Since many detainees and prisoners aren’t vaccinated against COVID-19, bringing them to court could pose a health risk.

“This may have far-reaching consequences in terms of the risk to public health and in terms of harming the procedural rights of detainees and prisoners,” he wrote.

Additionally, some aspects of the pandemic response will be harmed, Mandelblit warned.

“I emphasized the material harm that is expected from the lack of a serving minister,” he said.

Mandelblit concluded the letter by urging Netanyahu and Gantz to immediately appoint a permanent justice minister.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) and Defense Minister Benny Gantz face away from each other during the swearing in of the 24th Knesset (Knesset spokesperson’s office)

His warning came after two separate petitions were filed Sunday with the High Court of Justice by good governance groups seeking to push the cabinet to nominate a justice minister or explain why it will not.

The lack of a justice minister has serious ramifications for the ability of the judicial system to function properly in some areas, including signing off on sentence reductions for inmates or extradition orders. It will also affect the ability of the interim government to pass any new legislation, as government bills must first be okayed by the justice minister, who heads the Ministerial Committee for Legislation. This would even potentially affect urgent legislation regarding peace agreements and the battle against COVID-19.

Last week, Gantz castigated Netanyahu for blocking the appointment and said he had written to Mandelblit 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.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sits with his lawyers at a hearing in his corruption trial at the Jerusalem District Court, April 5, 2021. (Pool/AFP)

The first hearings in the evidentiary phase of Netanyahu’s trial for alleged bribery, fraud and breach of trust were held this week. The thrice-weekly hearings are set to resume on Monday.

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.

Netanyahu cannot serve as justice minister himself due to the criminal charges against him, and last month 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.

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