Knesset panel bogged down over ministry oversight czar

Former justice minister Friedmann says attorney-general cannot tell government ‘to shut up.’

The Knesset plenum  (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
The Knesset plenum
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
The Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee on Wednesday was still stuck in an impasse as it tried to move forward with revising the powers of the Justice Ministry’s oversight “czar.”
The oversight czar’s position was created for cases of excessive delay by the prosecution in wrapping up certain cases and some other excesses, in order to strengthen public faith in the prosecution, following several incidents of bad press.
The office was thrown into chaos in April when the office’s first head, Hila Gerstl, resigned in frustration at being blocked at doing her oversight, through lack of cooperation on the prosecution’s side. She has not been replaced.
Possibly complicating efforts, former justice minister Prof. Daniel Friedmann has pushed during yesterday’s committee’s meeting for a bill that gives the oversight czar even greater power than it has today and more than what is suggested in the coalition’s official proposal.
Friedmann said the attorney-general must be placed under the ministry czar’s oversight to stop him from saying “I am the state.” Friedmann added that “he [the attorney-general] cannot determine for the government what is the law, to tell the government to shut up, and to prevent it from presenting its view.”
The current powers of the oversight czar do not extend to the attorney-general and it has been unclear how the Knesset would decide on the issue.
Friedmann also pressed for all oversight powers to be in one government office.
But Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked’s official coalition compromise proposal differs from Friedmann’s recommendations on a range of other related issues.
Shaked’s bill was an attempt to please the prosecutors union on the one side, and a majority of public officials, NGOs and the office of the oversight czar itself on the other side.
The sides have fought so ferociously over how much the czar can second- guess prosecutors, that the prosecution has called several extended strikes in response.
Shaked’s bill has leaned toward the oversight czar, allowing the power to criticize individual prosecutors’ by name. On the other hand, it also leaned toward the prosecutors, suggesting a pilot program, the second year of which would see various powers from the oversight czar’s unit transferred to an internal (and less independent) inspector within the Justice Ministry.
After the two years, a decision would be made about whether the oversight powers remain in one or two offices.
Movement for Quality Government in Israel Chairman Eliad Shraga said that Shaked does not really believe in these compromises, but felt compelled to support them because of pressure from the prosecution, which she must regularly work with.
He said that she in fact supports former justice minister Tzipi Livni’s bill, which dovetails with Friedmann’s recommendation of expanding oversight powers to include the attorney-general and keeping the oversight powers in one office.
Representing the prosecutors, Jerusalem District attorney Kochavit Netzach Dolev said the committee’s push for more invasive oversight than currently exists shows a desire to harm the standing of the attorney-general and to use demagoguery against the prosecutors.
Union of Prosecutors President Limor Peled warned that the tone of the committee was moving toward weakening prosecutorial independence and the rule of law.
MK Shelly Yacimovich (Zionist Union) was one of the few MKs to support the prosecutors, recalling that the entire move to increase oversight over the prosecution started when Olmert was under investigation. In other words, the motives were and are questionable.
But most MKs, including MK Revital Swid from Yacimovich’s Zionist Union, are in favor of anchoring the oversight czar into some law, and committee chairman MK Nissan Slomiansky (Bayit Yehudi) made it clear he is determined to do so.
At the same time, Slomiansky is still trying to achieve a compromise and is less antagonistic to the prosecutors than State Control Committee chairwoman Karin Elharar, who lost control of the issue to Slomiansky.
Another factor which will likely allow some kind of legislation to move forward is that whereas former attorney-general Yehuda Weinstein opposed being overseen, current Attorney-General Avichai Mandelblit is not opposed.
Until now, the oversight czar has operated for the last few years on a mostly ad hoc basis, having been created by a decision from the time of Livni and Weinstein, but without the full authority that comes with a proper law.