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Will Gantz defend the rule of law against the Israeli right?

Blue and White leader Benny Gantz may be forced to choose between defending democracy and rule of law in Israel and improving his chances of forming a right-wing government after the March 2 elections.
Leader of Israeli Blue and White party Benny Gantz speaks at the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) conference in Tel Aviv, Israel January 29, 2020. REUTERS/Corinna Kern - RC2UPE9HAC8E

Avichai Mandelblit had no idea he was such a saboteur.

As chief military advocate general, he legalized government actions verging on war crimes. As Cabinet secretary, he signed dozens of documents advancing Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territory. As attorney general, the job he currently holds, he exempted Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu from an investigation under caution in a scandal involving the purchase of submarines and other naval craft from Germany. Since last November, however, when Mandelblit announced his decision to indict Netanyahu on corruption charges, he has become the regime’s punching bag. At the Feb. 9 Cabinet meeting, ministers vied with each other over who could hit Mandelblit the hardest. They accused him of torpedoing the work of the government and undermining every initiative it seeks to undertake.

When Likud's Moshe Kahlon served as communications minister and pushed through a sweeping (and popular) reform of the mobile phone market, Netanyahu urged his ministers, “Be Kahlons.” (In light of the titillating correspondence that has recently come to light about Kahlon’s role in the appointment of Eti Kreif as a Shalom Court judge, Netanyahu may not be too keen to remember that exhortation.) These days, the ministers all want to be “Ohanas.”

Championed by the prime minister, Justice Minister Amir Ohana has turned Mandelblit and the state prosecutor into enemies of the people. As the March 2 elections draw near, the red lines defining the rule of law are being erased. Any time poll results darken the mood at the prime minister’s residence on Balfour Street in Jerusalem, it's a bad time for the attorney general and the state prosecutor on the other side of town on Salah a-Din Street.

The latest clash between the government and Mandelblit stems from Ohana’s proposed appointment of a committee to examine the conduct of the police force's internal affairs unit. Overriding Mandelblit’s objections to such an election-eve move by an unelected, interim government, Ohana argued that it was time to examine the state prosecutor’s jurisdiction over the unit. Explaining that the panel was necessary to restore public trust in the system, Ohana intends to appoint two die-hard critics of the State Prosecution to lead it. To avoid tying the hands of the next, elected government, Ohana decided that the committee would present its findings and conclusions in four months, and the new government could then decide whether to accept its recommendations.

What, then, is so urgent about the government approving the committee? After all, criticism of the internal affairs unit and proposals to remove it from the State Prosecution's jurisdiction are not new. Is it worth battling the attorney general and risking his decision not to defend the panel against a Supreme Court challenge merely to appoint a committee comprised of two or three staunch critics of the State Prosecution? The answers to these questions apparently relate to a deal concocted between the ruling Likud and Blue and White Knesset member Gadi Yabarkan, who was promised the relatively high 23rd position on the Likud’s next Knesset list.

It is no secret that the leaders of the Israeli Ethiopian community, Yabarkan included, have been championing a fierce battle against the internal affairs unit of the police. They claim that the police have covered up for the officers who last July shot and killed Solomon Teka, an Ethiopian Israeli. In a harshly worded letter to Ohana, Mandelblit wrote on Feb. 6 that the Likud's deal promising the formation of such a committee in order to woo Yeverkan to cross party lines was an illegal election campaign promise. In the letter, Mandeblit referred to a statement by Yabarkan, who said that the establishment of the committee constituted one of the subjects that Netanyahu promised to address immediately as part of his moving to the Likud. Mandelblit wrote, “[T]he explanation of the proposal does note that it [the committee] will not handle exclusively the complaints by Israeli Ethiopians, but one cannot ignore what M. Yabarkan himself said.” Mandelblit emphasized that an interim government is required to display restraint in exercising its authority, stressing that political interests must not override the public interest.

What's so urgent can also be asked about the decision adopted at the same Feb. 9 Cabinet session approving the immigration of 400 Ethiopian immigrants of Jewish origin. As if the Cabinet meeting were an election rally in a neighborhood of Ethiopian immigrants, Netanyahu waxed poetic about all he had done for the community. “I have convened here a meeting of government ministers to deal with all needs, but first of all this basic need — to understand how they feel … and to truly take a very clear stand against all expressions of racism in general and against our brothers and sisters in particular,” said the caretaker prime minister, who has developed a unique expertise in stirring up hatred against Israel's Arab citizens and left-wing voters.

The previous round in the government’s unprecedented war against Mandelblit had taken place Feb. 4 in the Knesset Committee, which voted to grant immunity from prosecution to Haim Katz, a Likud lawmaker and former minister indicted on charges of fraud and breach of trust in a conflict of interest scandal. With the help of two abstentions from the Blue and White and two from the Arab Joint List, the political right turned the criminal indictment into a public hazing of the attorney general and the state prosecutor. Mandelblit tried to sway the lawmakers from their decision, but to no avail. Mandelblit told the legislators debating the immunity request that the conflict of interest alleged in the indictment was “not far from a bribery offense.” “[W]e are talking about fraud and breach of trust at the highest level of severity,” Mandelblit said.

Opposition Knesset member Yoav Segalovitch, a former head of the Israel Police Investigations Department, added that the charges were among the worst on the spectrum of fraud and breach of trust offenses. “Are we a professional guild or an example and symbol?” the former deputy police commissioner and freshman Knesset member lashed out at his colleagues. “No one would be happy over a conviction, but we are not a judicial tribunal.” Did you hear that, Benny Gantz, leader of the Blue and White?

The Knesset Committee’s decision granting Katz immunity will be brought to the plenary for a vote in the next few days. Members of the current right-wing coalition will presumably vote as one to approve the decision benefitting one of their own in a minor act of revenge over last month’s failure to push through another immunity request for one of their own, Netanyahu, who withdrew his request at the last minute, realizing it would be denied. Some lawmakers from the Joint List and the Labor-Gesher-Meretz alliance might follow in the footsteps of their representatives on the Knesset Committee who found reasons to abstain in the previous vote. For Gantz, as leader of the opposition, this is a crucial leadership test.

Gantz's praise for President Donald Trump’s “deal of the century” and support for annexation of the Jordan Valley indicates that as far as the Palestinian issue goes, he could easily form a right-wing government after the elections. If he allows his party members to vote whichever way they want on Katz's immunity instead of enforcing party discipline in favor of defending the nation’s gatekeepers, he will also be able to reach understandings with the Likud on the future of Israeli democracy and the rule of law.

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