A-G: Replacing me with outsider would undermine foundations of gov't

A-G, Ohana, Blue and White, Likud battle over protests during coronavirus

Attorney-General Avichai Mandelblit on Tuesday accused Public Security Minister Amir Ohana (Likud) of trying to replace him with outside legal advisers as a legal and political war broke out over protests in the coronavirus era.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Ohana and the Likud have been trying to stop or restrict the protests for months and have intensified their efforts since the national lockdown began last week.
Meanwhile, Mandelblit, Justice Minister Avi Nissenkorn (Blue and White) and Blue and White have supported the right to protest, even as the attorney-general has issued a growing number of limits for managing the protests according to public health guidelines.
However, given that many protesters are ignoring Mandelblit’s guidelines and believe Netanyahu is using the lockdown to quell dissent, as well as the Likud and haredi parties saying that anti-Netanyahu protesters get special treatment, the issue has become intractable.
“The farce needs to stop... there is a state of emergency,” Netanyahu said late Tuesday night.
On Saturday night, protesters ignored the new guidelines handed down for the lockdown period. It was unclear whether this was a one-time move since the guidelines were announced without giving the police or protesters significant time to adapt, or if demonstrators would continue to flaunt the rules.
The latest rebuke from Mandelblit came as Ohana tried to bring Kohelet Policy Forum and legal scholar Aviad Bakshi to the cabinet on Tuesday to present his legal opinion supporting the state’s right to ban the protests given the coronavirus lockdown.
In contrast, Mandelblit’s position is that protesters must observe mask-wearing and social-distancing guidelines, including being split into self-contained smaller capsules, but that there is no maximum limit on demonstrations as long as they are outdoors and the guidelines are followed.
Mandelblit said he respected Bakshi’s scholarship but rejected bringing him to the cabinet meeting.
“It is clear that there cannot be a situation where the government ministers request to present the legal opinion of the attorney-general as merely one among many, with government officials free to choose among them, whatever is best in their eyes,” Mandelblit said.
“Since this is clearly the purpose underlying the request of the public security minister in inviting Prof. Bakshi to the ministerial committee meeting,” Bakshi’s participation could lead to “an illegal decision,” he said.
The idea that government ministers could just swap official authorized professionals anytime they did not like their advice “would significantly undermine the foundations of a properly operating government,” Mandelblit said.
“No one would imagine bringing an outside military expert to stand in for the position of the IDF chief of staff, the Shin Bet director” or any other such major official, he wrote.
The High Court of Justice has made it clear that the attorney-general’s rulings are binding, but it was not that there could not be other voices on any given issue, Mandelblit said.
He invited Bakshi to present his position to the staff of the Attorney-General’s Office. Mandelblit pledged that if the ministers wanted, he would present both Bakshi’s views and his office’s critique of those views.
Mandelblit did not stand alone. Blue and White refused to start the meeting until the Likud backed down from bringing Bakshi into the cabinet’s meeting area.
Responding to Mandelblit and Blue and White, Ohana said: “The Blue and White Party is serving Mandelblit instead of the public. In light of the attorney-general’s statements that MKs and ministers are not allowed to debate and decide on limits to protests, I solicited for the coronavirus cabinet the opinion of Dr. Aviad Bakshi... according to which the government is the sole proper forum to decide the issue.”
Blue and White was stifling debate, he said. In the areas of public health, security and economics, it was permissible to hear differing views, but “the attorney-general has a monarchy over legal issues,” he added.
Cracks seemed to emerge in center and left-wing political support for the protesters. MK Ofer Shelah (Yesh Atid-Telem) on Tuesday called on protesters to halt physical demonstrations during the period of the lockdown.
Shelah said he sympathized with efforts to highlight corruption by Netanyahu, whose trial for bribery and fraud is set to start in January. However, he said, the lockdown was a unique time period when other creative methods of protest should be pursued so that coronavirus rates could be lowered.
It was not clear that Shelah represented the view of the party, with his colleague MK Yorai Lahav Hertzanu tweeting that as long as there was no proof of infections at outdoor protests, they could be continued “full force.”
Moreover, the Crime Minister Movement criticized Shelah for “failing his first test as a leader.”
Last week, the Black Flags movement, the largest group organizing the protests, said it would temporarily halt them during the lockdown.
But the protest movement consists of disparate groups, and thousands showed up this past weekend even without the lead group.
Haredi leaders continued to attack the protests. Shas chairman Aryeh Deri said he could not convince his constituents to abide by limits for praying in synagogues if there was a double standard for protesters.
Deri said he would tell his constituents to refrain from indoor prayer and pray outdoors if the state cracked down equally on protesters and Tel Aviv beach-goers and shoppers. The protests are only outdoors.
MK Ariel Kallner (Likud) and the Im Tirzu Movement said the protesters were being funded by foreign governments with improper motivations against the ruling coalition.
While at points the protests have included a diverse range of groups, including apolitical small-business owners and good-government activists, the Likud has said some protesters are anarchists with problematic motivations.