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Israel Supreme Court halts appointment of Netanyahu loyalist to Justice Ministry

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (C) on 21 January 2019 [Mehahem Kahana/AFP/Getty Images]
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on 21 January 2019 [Mehahem Kahana/AFP/Getty Images]

Israel's Supreme Court has frozen the appointment of Ophir Cohen, a loyalist to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, as the director general of the Justice Ministry.

In June, Netanyahu appointed Amir Ohana – a long-time ally and supporter of immunity for the prime minister in the face of three corruption indictments – as justice minister.

His appointment was only temporary, given that Israel currently has a caretaker government after Netanyahu failed to form a ruling coalition following the 9 April election. A new justice minister will be chosen as part of the coalition negotiations which will follow the country's do-over election on 17 September.

However, despite only holding the position of justice minister temporarily, last month Ohana sparked outrage by abruptly firing the ministry's veteran director general, Emi Palmor. The move sent shockwaves through Israel's legal community, with the judiciary reportedly not being given prior warning of the decision.

Israel's Attorney General, Avichai Mandelblit, was reportedly also opposed to the move and only approved the decision because Palmor agreed to step down.

READ: Israel minister resigns after being handed graft indictment

Ohana then nominated real estate and tax attorney Ophir Cohen to replace Palmor. A relatively unknown figure, Cohen is a colonel in the Israeli army reserves who knows Ohana from their military service together.

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Critics have noted that Cohen has almost no experience in the public sector, raising suspicion that his nomination formed part of a bid to stack the justice ministry in favour of Netanyahu ahead of his graft trial. For his part, Ohana has previously defended choosing Cohen by claiming that he could not find a better candidate from within the Justice Ministry to replace Palmor.

Now the Supreme Court has blocked Cohen's appointment, with Justice Menachem Mazuz saying during yesterday's hearing that "removing a director general during an election campaign and appointing another from outside the civil service directly contradicts the guidelines of the attorney general, and stands in direct opposition to the explicit ruling of the Supreme Court," referring to legal opinions on the powers of a caretaker government.

The ruling came following an appeal by Israeli NGO Movement for Quality Government, which slammed the appointment as a "very precarious and dangerous decision […] which creates an opening to make far-reaching moves in government ministries during a caretaker government".

READ: Israel Police recommends indicting ultra-Orthodox leader for aiding accused paedophile

This is not the only step Netanyahu has taken in a bid to secure his immunity from prosecution; the prime minister has also filled other legal portfolios with political allies, including the position of State Comptroller, the official who reviews the Israeli government's policies and operations.

The position was recently filled by Matanyahu Engelman, Netanyahu's candidate for the top job. His candidacy raised eyebrows given that Engelman is the first comptroller in 30 years who is not a former judge. This prompted speculation that Netanyahu had an ulterior motive for backing his candidacy, speculation which quickly proved justified when it emerged last month that Engelman had begun working to dismantle the office which oversees corruption probes.

In the month since being instated, Engelman has worked to disband the Special Assignments Department of the State Comptroller's Office, which has previously investigated former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Netanyahu's wife Sara, convicting her in what became known as the "catered meal" scandal.

Sources inside the office revealed that Engelman has asked senior officials to change how they prepare their annual workplans, which determine the issues that will be investigated in the coming year. Officials will now be required to give the government agencies they wish to monitor a say in the oversight process, effectively allowing them to navigate the investigations to committees more amenable to them.

It is therefore suspected that Netanyahu could use this new approach as part of his bid to avoid prosecution in a pre-indictment hearing slated for early October.

READ: Corruption auditors resign after row with Netanyahu watchdog pick

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