Israel’s William Barr Trashes the Justice System to Please Master Netanyahu

Justice Minister Amir Ohana’s appointment of an interim state prosecutor who will hold the post until a new government is formed, hopefully, after the March 2 election, sparked a lively constitutional debate Tuesday on the limits of Ohana’s authority. The ensuing clash between the minister and Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit, who opposes Ohana’s pick and has essentially nixed it, provides Israelis fond of the genre with riveting political drama worthy of any “House of Cards” or “West Wing” episode.

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In normal times, the debate and drama surrounding Ohana’s decision to ignore the senior-level candidate proposed by Mendelblit and appoint a lower-level government attorney instead may have been viewed as in-house bickering that’s gotten out of hand. In these abnormal times, with an indicted prime minister bent on escaping prosecution and seeking reelection, the Ohana-Mendelblit showdown should be seen as a decisive skirmish in Netanyahu’s all-out war against the rule of law.

Some of the opposition to Ohana’s decision to pick Central District Deputy Prosecutor Orly Ben-Ari Ginsberg as interim state prosecutor stems from the fact that Ohana is a member of a caretaker government with limited powers. His own appointment as interim justice minister was made without the usual Knesset approval for that very reason.

Ironically, were it not for the fact that Israel is in transition between an outgoing and – hopefully again – incoming government, Ohana would have been compelled to accept the recommendation of the attorney general, who normally heads the public committee charged with proposing a new state prosecutor.

Under such transitory circumstances, Ohana’s critics maintain, it is doubly imperative that Ohana refrain from making the appointment over Mendelblit’s head and against his wishes. The state prosecutor, after all, is subordinate to Mendelblit in all legal matters. The High Court of Justice, critics insist, is sure to nix the appointment, especially after Mendelblit issued a defiant verdict declaring it “beyond reasonableness” and null and void from a legal point of view.

Justice Minister Amir Ohana on Election Day, September 17, 2019.Ofer Vaknin

Ohana, in fact, may be aiming for just such a result. Mendelblit’s objections, as well as any future High Court concurrence, provides Ohana with supposed proof that Israel is being run by a legal cartel intent on carrying out regime change by ousting Netanyahu. Like a blunter version of Donald Trump’s attorney general, William Barr, Ohana has declared war on Israel’s justice system over supposedly unconnected and long-held grievances, which just happens to serve the interests of Netanyahu’s campaign to delegitimize his own accusers and the criminal indictments they have presented against him.

Seen in this light, Ohana’s move is borderline criminal in and of itself: A prime minister indicted for bribery, fraud and breach of trust appoints a political hack to the Justice Ministry, who then appoints a new state prosecutor to his liking. Sounds more like a Third World kleptocracy than the only democracy in the Middle East. Or, arguably, like the United States.