Israel’s First Female Attorney General at Center of Judicial Storm

Supporters call her an iron lady. Opponents say she is what’s wrong with the system.

(Bloomberg) — When Gali Baharav-Miara was appointed Israel’s attorney general two years ago, she broke a glass ceiling as the first woman in the job — but barely anybody in the country had heard of her.

Now she finds herself at the center of a heated fight over Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s proposed overhaul of the judiciary, the country’s most brutal internal debate in decades. Protected by security, she’s hailed by one side as a bulwark of democracy for standing up to the PM, while derided by the other as exactly what’s wrong with a system in need of fixing. Some of Netanyahu’s coalition partners want her fired.

“She currently functions as de facto opposition leader,” said far-right National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir, when calling for her dismissal.

The rage against her is symptomatic of the anger against the system she leads, one in which government legal advisers like her not only advise but also oversee. In the past seven months, she has ordered Netanyahu to recuse himself from debate over the judiciary while he faces corruption charges, accused him of breaking the law, and stopped the demotion of a police official seen as being soft on anti-government protesters.

“She’s an iron lady,” said Tomer Naor, the head of the legal department at the Movement for Quality Government, a nongovernmental organization. “She is one of the gatekeepers for democracy in Israel at the moment.”

The government has been pursuing a revolution in the way Israel’s legal system operates, arguing that this oversight — as well as the ability of judges to declare a law unconstitutional and an appointment “unreasonable” — are illegitimate judicial activism. The people, it says, voted for a set of more-nationalist and less-liberal policies when they elected this right-wing, religious government and it is undemocratic for judges to get in the way.

The coalition is expected to pass a law banning the “reasonableness” test from being used in judgments before the month ends — and then, perhaps, to change the way judges are selected to make the role of politicians dominant. This has led Israel’s business and military establishments  to warn that the economy and democracy are at risk. They have taken to the streets at least weekly for more than six months. 

As the reasonableness law was reintroduced in June, protests flared anew, with demonstrators blocking highways and lighting bonfires. Netanyahu allies have renewed criticism of Baharav-Miara for failing to prosecute participants or blocking protests. Instead, she issued a letter saying that protesters have a free-speech right to demonstrate at Israel’s main airport, for example, with restrictions in place appropriate for such a sensitive public area. A leaked transcript from a July 9 cabinet meeting had minister after minister denouncing her and demanding her dismissal.

Read More: Why Israel Is Bitterly Split by a Judiciary Overhaul

On Tuesday, Baharav-Miara decried the increased attacks on law-enforcement in a speech at a conference.

“This is a cynical and blatant attempt to stain the legitimacy of the law-enforcement system,” she said. “I will not be deterred.”

Baharav-Miara, 63, was appointed in 2022 by former Prime Minister Naftali Bennett. Before taking office, she was a relative unknown even in legal circles. She had worked for decades in District and State attorneys’ offices, mostly handling civil cases and representing the state of Israel in court, before moving in 2016 to the private sector with Israeli law firm Tadmor Levy & Co. She is married with three children. She had a reputation as a top-notch lawyer and manager, but she worked largely under the radar: no media attention, no interviews. Baharav-Miara declined to comment for this story.

Then came the turmoil of the past year, where she found herself simultaneously advising Netanyahu while her office prosecuted him on corruption charges.

Before the current conflict, Baharav-Miara wasn’t exactly a darling of the left. The Movement for Quality Government in Israel, which says Netanyahu should step down, was at odds with her over several decisions. 

People who work with her say her life has changed: She’s been given a security detail — not unheard of for the position, but not something she started off with, either. 

Read More: Israeli Firebrands Are Turning on Central Banker After Targeting Judges

It would be highly unusual for the prime minister to fire the attorney general but also rather difficult as long as the Supreme Court can use the reasonableness test to reinstate her. Should that be removed from judges’ toolkits, however, it would be easier. 

“There is some protection against unreasonable removal from power,” said Rivka Weill, a professor at the Harry Radzyner Law School at Reichman University in Herzliya, Israel. “Once it’s removed, it’ll be harder to protect against abuse.”

Unlike in the US, the attorney general in Israel doesn’t serve at the pleasure of the executive. Instead, the person is picked by a selection committee — and, traditionally, approved without objection by the government. The term lasts six years, a length that could span administrations from different parties. In addition, the attorney general in Israel wears many hats: She is chief legal adviser to the government, telling officials whether legislation or policies are lawful. And as chief prosecutor, she oversees all investigative proceedings — including Netanyahu’s current trial for corruption.

Ideally, legal experts say, the attorney general wants a good working relationship so that the prime minister accepts the office’s opinions. If they disagree, government ministers can hire private lawyers to defend their actions — and they have.

Meanwhile, calls continue for her to leave her post. Likud party politician David Amsalem said on Wednesday in the Knesset that Baharav-Miara was “the most dangerous person” in the country. He said that while the country was in chaos, she was “busy blow drying and curling her hair, and does not hear anything.”

Amsalem has been saying that she should quit.

People who work with her say she’s not even considering it.

–With assistance from Marissa Newman and Galit Altstein.

(Updates with Amsalem quote in the 19th paragraph.)

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