Justices halt Netanyahu’s illegal vote on justice minister

High Court freezes appointment of Likudnik and Regional Cooperation Minister Ofir Akunis, may be on the verge of appointing Defense Minister and Blue and White chairman Benny Gantz

Israeli High Court hearing on whether Netanyahu can form next government despite indictment he faces. (December 31, 2019) (photo credit: YONAH JEREMY BOB)
Israeli High Court hearing on whether Netanyahu can form next government despite indictment he faces. (December 31, 2019)
(photo credit: YONAH JEREMY BOB)
An unparalleled day of legal drama ended with the High Court of Justice late Tuesday night freezing the sudden attempted appointment of Likudnik and Regional Cooperation Minister Ofir Akunis to be justice minister.
The justices are expected to decide the issue of who will be justice minister as early as Wednesday, though Tuesday’s twists and turns showed just how combustible the situation is.
The decision to freeze as opposed to nixing the appointment removes any pressure from actions Akunis could have taken, while giving all of the sides some breathing space.
The High Court also ordered a new hearing for Wednesday at 3:30 p.m., as well as ordering all sides to submit their updated legal positions earlier on Wednesday.
At mid-afternoon on Tuesday – and after hours of a stormy cabinet meeting – the Likud and its allies voted to appoint Akunis, despite Attorney-General Avichai Mandelblit ruling that the vote was illegal because Blue and White had not consented to it.
The meeting itself came about under pressure from Mandelblit, the High Court and Alternate Prime Minister Benny Gantz following nearly a month in which the post has been vacant.
Gantz filled the post for a temporary three-month period until the start of April, but Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has blocked his Blue and White Party from filling it permanently ever since.
During the cabinet meeting, there was frequent shouting, accusations of conflicts of interest, violating the law and a general feel that the Likud and Blue and White could barely even sit in the same room, let alone resolve the issue.
Netanyahu claimed that it made no sense to appoint a permanent justice minister who could bind the next government’s hands on certain issues, when a new government could come into being at any moment.
Instead, he suggested either granting certain powers of the justice minister to Gantz to resolve specific issues, or having separate, broader political negotiations with the Blue and White leader.
IN THE MEANTIME, Gantz and other Blue and White officials said Netanyahu was acting cynically, or even violating conflict of interest laws that prevent him from being involved in law enforcement issues while under indictment.
Public Security Minister Amir Ohana retorted that Gantz himself has conflict of interest issues because of the Fifth Dimension saga probe (though he is not a suspect there) and that the coalition agreement empowering Gantz to decide who the justice minister will be is null and void, now that there is a new Knesset.
Mandelblit said that no one has a conflict of interest on the issue, but that a justice minister is needed to resolve the problem of unvaccinated prisoners coming to court in person.
He added that if the High Court must intervene and appoint a justice minister itself, it would be a disaster.
In a shocking moment, Netanyahu denied Mandelblit the right to speak before holding the vote to approve Akunis, allowing him to declare the vote illegal only after it had already been held.
Later Tuesday, the High Court justices appeared to say that they agreed with Mandelblit: that Netanyahu and the Likud had violated their own coalition agreement with Blue and White by holding a vote without acknowledging the other party’s veto.
Under the coalition deal, Likud controls one set of ministries and Blue and White controls another, including the Justice Ministry.
Mandelblit gave Netanyahu permission to bring in lawyer David Peter to represent him, since the differences between the sides left him incapable of defending the executive branch’s position.
However, Peter faced a harsh audience with the justices cutting him off left and right and insisting that he recognize that Mandelblit’s views were binding on Netanyahu.
Moreover, they said it was highly problematic that Netanyahu had cut off Mandelblit from speaking before the vote about Akunis.
Further, they lectured Peter that the High Court is not like a playground friend who can have his “knee scraped” in response to the prime minister feeling the justices had “put his back to the wall.”
Rather, the justices said that Netanyahu power-grabbing a ministry – in violation of the coalition deal he agreed to and enshrined into law – was an issue of paramount constitutional relevance to the court’s jurisdiction.
Netanyahu issued a Facebook warning explaining his actions, blaming Gantz for breaking a new deal and advising the High Court to stay out of the issue and leave it to the politicians.
Gantz issued a Facebook video slamming Netanyahu as a chronic deal-violator and calling on anyone considering his overtures for a new rotation government to realize that the prime minister would break any deal later on.