Akunis defends himself at High Court after legal adviser refuses

The court made the highly unusual move of allowing Akunis to present his own case, instead of having his ministry’s legal adviser do so, despite the latter’s staunch opposition.

November 11, 2018 15:44
2 minute read.
JPost Annual Conference 2017

Ofir Akunis at the JPost Annual Conference 2017 . (photo credit: SIVAN FARAG)

In an unusual move, Science and Technology Minister Ofir Akunis appeared before the High Court of Justice to defend his own decision to block a professor from joining a joint Israeli-German scientific committee because she called for soldiers to refuse orders.

The High Court granted an injunction on Sunday against Akunis’s rejection of Yael Amitai, a professor of physiology and cell biology at Ben-Gurion University, as a representative of Israel in the German-Israeli Foundation for Scientific Research and Development.

Akunis made the decision in July – after discovering that Amitai had signed a petition calling for soldiers to refuse orders in the West Bank – saying that makes her an inappropriate choice to represent Israel internationally. The Council for Higher Education in Israel petitioned the court against the minister’s actions.

The court plans to hold further deliberations on the case.

During the discussions, the court made the highly unusual move of allowing Akunis to present his own case, instead of having his ministry’s legal adviser do so, despite the latter’s staunch opposition. This occurred while the Knesset has been debating legislation that would weaken ministerial legal advisers’ power, by having them be appointed by ministers, rather than by the State Attorney’s Office, and represents a victory for those who seek greater legal independence for ministers.

The State Attorney’s Office told the court that it opposed allowing Akunis to defend himself before the court, and that its legal advisers told the minister “this case does not justify separate representation,” even though it had refused to represent his position, calling it unreasonable.

Justice Alex Stein said “the right of representation is very important,” and the court allowed Akunis to speak.

“I thank you for the opportunity to describe things accurately and directly,” Akunis said.

The minister quoted from the letter Amitai signed, in which academics called to refuse orders, adding: “In the Criminal Code, it clearly states that whoever lobbies or incites to not serve [in the IDF] or not to appear for military action should be sent to prison. This is a call to refuse to serve in the territories during a murderous Intifada.... In July 2018 [Amitai] said in an interview that she does not take back her support for refusing orders.”

Stein also wondered why Akunis should not be able to decide who is on the committee, if the law grants him that authority. The State Attorney’s Office responded that he has the authority, but not to make political decisions.

“That’s true, but he has the right to bring nonacademic considerations into the fabric of considerations,” Stein responded.

The Council for Higher Education said the court’s injunction to keep Amitai on the committee “sends a sharp and clear message to Minister Akunis and all ministers that they cannot mix political considerations in professional decisions. The minister’s behavior is inserting political considerations into scientific research in Israel and serves movements like BDS.”

The council added that, for professional reasons, Amitai is the right person to represent Israel.

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