Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit has forbidden law enforcement officials from appearing before a Knesset committee debate on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s graft probes, saying he feared that lawmakers’ expected public pressuring of officials could amount to obstruction.
The committee was scheduled to discuss on Thursday claims by Netanyahu that multiple criminal investigations in which he is embroiled are the product of one allegedly vindictive cop — former Lahav 433 anti-graft unit head Roni Rittman — who believed the Netanyahus engineered his forced resignation in February on allegations of sexual harassment.
Mandelblit’s decision enraged Interior Committee chair MK Yoav Kisch, a Netanyahu ally, who charged that law enforcement officials were trying to “silence” his committee and vowed to establish a formal state investigative committee into the Rittman affair.
“Those who didn’t want a discussion in the Interior Committee will get a state investigation,” he declared in a statement to the press.
The Interior Committee meeting was scheduled after the Netanyahu family’s lawyers on Tuesday sent a letter to the attorney general asking him to reexamine evidence collected by Rittman, and alleging the investigations were biased against the prime minister and his wife, Sara.
The letter claimed that Rittman believed the Netanyahus were behind the sexual harassment allegations that forced his resignation, and that the investigations he opened into the Netanyahus — so-called cases 1000, 2000 and 4000 — were not objective.
“This casts a heavy shadow on the investigations conducted by Rittman into the Netanyahu family, and any evidence regarding the Netanyahu couple investigated by his unit is questionable,” the letter, signed by attorneys Yossi Cohen and Yaakov Weinroth, said. “Therefore, we ask that you reexamine the investigations.”
Rittman stepped down in February amid allegations that he sexually harassed two female subordinates in 2011. He denied the claims, and suggested it was a conspiracy to bring him down.
On Wednesday, Kisch announced that the Knesset Interior Committee, which oversees the police, would hold a discussion about the prime minister’s allegation. The committee invited several top investigators and state prosecutors.
But Mandelblit resisted, writing in a late Wednesday letter to Knesset Legal Adviser Eyal Yinon that the committee meeting “could hamper the investigations in a way that could be interpreted as an obstruction attempt.” He asked Yinon to intervene with Kisch and cancel the meeting. Kisch refused.
On Thursday, Mandelblit, the nation’s top law enforcement officer, informed Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein that he would not permit any of the invited officials to attend the committee meeting.
“After serious consideration, noting that this action [i.e., refusing an invitation from a Knesset committee] does not comport with our usual way of doing things, I am notifying you that under these circumstances, no representatives of law enforcement agencies will be able to attend the meeting,” Mandelblit wrote. “I have concluded that we have no other choice.”
In his letter, Mandelblit noted that Kisch seemed to have already made up his mind as to the nature of the investigations, quoting Kisch’s own press statement about the committee debate in which Kisch wrote that he planned to find out “how an investigation against Netanyahu can function when the supervising investigator [i.e., Rittman] believes that Netanyahu is behind a campaign of sexual harassment complaints against him. We’ll get clarity in the committee,” Kisch vowed.
Within an hour of Mandelblit’s announcement, Kisch said he had canceled Thursday’s meeting, lashing Mandelblit and other officials for the “baseless, even embarrassing argument that there is a risk of obstructing justice or tainting the investigation.”
Kisch added: “One could offer countless examples of Knesset debates about issues taking place in real time, from tenders to pending appointments to decisions that were about to be made — no one ever tried to stop them. When it comes to corrupting the investigation into Netanyahu, suddenly it’s forbidden, suddenly there’s this fear.”
Kisch then said he would work to establish a state investigative committee to look into Netanyahu’s allegations about police bias against him.
Only the cabinet and the Knesset’s State Control committee, chaired by opposition MK Shelly Yachimovich (Zionist Union), have the power to establish a formal state investigative committee. Kisch would have to convince one of those bodies to vote for such a committee into the Rittman affair.
Mandelblit also had his defenders in parliament on Thursday. MK Revital Swed (Zionist Union) accused Kisch of “serving as a mercenary to a prime minister suspected of criminal acts,” and of “using his parliamentary power to obstruct an investigation. This is a dangerous precedent of intervention in an ongoing investigation of a political figure.”
The Haaretz daily reported on Tuesday that Rittman had asked investigators probing the sexual misconduct claims against him if the allegations were linked to his unit’s probe into the Netanyahus’ suspected misdeeds. He also asked the Police Internal Investigation Department to check if Netanyahu-appointed State Prosecutor Shai Nitzan was involved in the case against him.
According to the report, the Police Internal Investigations Department turned up no evidence of interference by Netanyahu or anyone else in the case against Rittman, and confirmed the sexual misconduct allegations were made legitimately.
Rittman was accused of two instances of sexual harassment in 2011, including kissing a female subordinate against her will. Rittman denied the allegations, and claimed someone was trying to frame him. In 2015, during the course of the investigation, he was put on mandatory leave.
No indictment was ever filed against Rittman due to “evidentiary issues.”
Following a brief suspension, Israel Police Commissioner Roni Alsheich reinstated him as head of Lahav 433, but in November last year, the High Court of Justice slammed his re-appointment to the position in light of the sexual misconduct claims. Rittman resigned two months later.
During that time, Netanyahu launched scathing attacks against the officers investigating him, including Rittman.
The prime minister has said that Rittman’s own claims that the sexual misconduct allegations were a conspiracy against him should have disqualified him from leading the investigation.