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Attorney-general appointee steps down amid controversy

JERUSALEM, Jan. 12 (JTA) — Israeli lawyer Roni Bar-On, whose appointment as attorney general raised hackles in political and legal circles, has decided not to take the position. Justice Minister Tzachi Hanegbi said Sunday night that Bar-On decided to step down because of the “organized media and political” attack against him. Earlier in the day, the swearing-in of the veteran Likud activist as Israel’s next attorney general was delayed to give the High Court of Justice time to consider a petition submitted by Labor Knesset member Ophir Pines regarding the nomination of the controversial appointee. Hanegbi said he and the prime minister had urged Bar-On to stay in the position, at least until the High Court ruled on the petition against his appointment. Edna Arbel, state prosecutor, will serve as acting attorney general, Hanegbi said. The appointment of Bar-On, a close associate of Hanegbi’s, had drawn sharp criticism from coalition and opposition members.
The Cabinet approved his appointment last Friday, with 12 ministers voting in favor, 5 abstaining and one opposing. Science Minister Ze’ev “Benny” Begin, who voted against Bar-On, was quoted as telling the Cabinet, “A political party activist cannot be appointed as attorney general. This position must be filled by an outstanding jurist.” Sharp criticism of the appointment also emerged from legal circles. “One would expect the person chosen to have accumulated for himself a record of total dedication to the rule of law — and not allegiance to his patrons,” a district court judge told the Israeli daily Ha’aretz. “It’s too bad the government decided to abandon this long- held tradition of choosing a legal professional qualified to preside over the Supreme Court.” Coalition and opposition members suggested that Bar-On would serve as a lackey for Hanegbi, who would wield the real influence over the attorney general’s decisions. Hanegbi rejected the criticisms, saying that Bar-On is “a person with the highest amount of integrity.” Defense Minister Yitzhak Mordechai also defended the appointment, saying that it was “approved by the government in a totally legitimate manner.” “Believe me, we discussed many of the reservations we are now hearing in the public — and ultimately, decided he was the best choice,” Mordechai told a Tel Aviv news conference. Bar-On, 48, is primarily known for his work in criminal law. After brief stints working for the state prosecutor and Jerusalem district prosecutor in the early 1970s, he opened a private practice in 1975. He was also very active in Likud circles. He and Jerusalem Mayor Ehud Olmert are close associates. Bar-On was slated to replace Michael Ben-Yair, who announced his resignation in December. Ben-Yair, who is moving to the private sector, is said to have resigned because Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu did not trust him. One of Ben-Yair’s last recommendations was to open a criminal investigation into former Justice Minister Ya’acov Ne’eman. Ne’eman resigned as justice minister last year after police launched an investigation after he allegedly obstructed court proceedings relating to the case of Shas Knesset member Aryeh Deri. After stepping down, Ne’eman was replaced by Hanegbi. Deri, a former interior minister in the government of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, resigned from his Cabinet post in 1993 after being indicted on charges of bribery, fraud and breach of public trust.

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