In taped phone conversations from 2015 and 2016, Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit can be heard tearing into Shai Nitzan, the state attorney at the time.
The release of the tapes on Tuesday drew a furious response from allies of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who Mandelblit indicted on corruption charges earlier this year. The attorney general and Nitzan, another key figure in the case, have been regular targets of the premier and his allies as they try to discredit the charges against Netanyahu.
The conversations took place between Mandelblit and the head of the Israel Bar Association at the time, Efi Nave, and were aired by Channel 12 Tuesday evening.
The attorney general rails against Nitzan in the recordings for failing to clear him of wrongdoing in a case known as the Harpaz affair, a military scandal dating back to 2010.
Mandelblit, who at the time was military advocate general, the army’s top legal officer, was briefly suspected of having helped military brass cover up a smear campaign.
He was questioned under caution in June 2014, when he was already out of uniform and serving as Netanyahu’s cabinet secretary, and later cleared by the High Court of Justice over his involvement in the affair and found to have “done no wrong.”
However, it was up to Nitzan and law enforcement to declare whether the case was closed due to lack of evidence, or the absence of a basis for an accusation.
For Mandelblit, who was cabinet secretary at the time of the call with Nave, a conclusion of lack of evidence could have scuppered his hopes of being appointed attorney general. Mandelbit was eventually appointed attorney general and took office in February 2016, despite the Harpaz case against him not being formally closed.
Channel 12 did not provide specific dates for the phone calls.
“Do you understand that that maniac isn’t making a decision on my case?” Mandelblit can be heard telling Nave, referring to Nitzan, who has since retired. “I don’t know what to do with him.” (In Hebrew, the word “maniac” has pejorative and insulting connotations.)
“He’s doing it to me on purpose. I don’t know what to do,” Mandelblit says.
“It’s possible he wants to have me by the throat,” he says. “I don’t know what he’s thinking. In the end I’ll lose it and make a big stink over this.”
Nave then asks Mandelblit why it bothers him so much.
“Because in the police records I show up as ‘waiting for clarification of his case.’ I have no closing decision. They haven’t closed my case,” Mandelblit responds.
“Does it bother you now?” Nave asks.
“It matters to me,” Mandelblit says. “I want to know that it was closed due to lack of guilt.”
The open case against Mandelblit has been used as ammunition against him by associates of Netanyahu who have sought to discredit the state prosecution as it proceeds with corruption charges against the premier.
Israel has been without a permanent state attorney since December 2019, with the end of the term Nitzan’s term. Nitzan was one of the key figures in the investigation and indictment of Netanyahu on corruption charges.
A report last month claimed the Nitzan covered up possible police misconduct to avoid giving ammunition to allies of the premier, who have sought to portray the criminal cases against him as a “witch hunt.”
Channel 12 said the recordings released Tuesday were obtained via legal means and were created with an application on Nave’s phone that automatically records conversations.
Mandelblit was on a virtual call with the so-called coronavirus cabinet when Channel 12 aired the recordings, and turned off his camera as the report came out, the network reported.
Nitzan said Tuesday in response to the release of the recordings, “The decision regarding Mandelblit’s case was made in March 2017, years before decisions about the prime minister’s cases, and there is no connection between the two.”
“There are those, whose motives are clear to everyone, who continue to spread completely unfounded conspiracy theories, which completely contradict the facts,” Nitzan said.
Likud lawmakers tore into Mandelblit following the report.
Knesset Speaker Yariv Levin of Likud said, “A situation where the attorney general himself testifies that the state attorney is holding him by the throat is unprecedented in its severity.”
“The decision-making process is fundamentally flawed, and the independence of weighing opinions is severely impaired,” Levin said.
Public Security Minister Amir Ohana of Likud, in a Twitter post, simply wrote, “I told you so.”
Coalition Whip Miki Zohar of Likud said, “Justice has come to light. It is clear that Mandelblit was pressured by Shai Nitzan to file indictments against the prime minister. The withdrawal of the indictments, a public apology from both of them, and the resignation of Mandelblit will not fix the terrible and unnecessary injustice done to Netanyahu and Likud.”
Netanyahu has not yet commented on the report.
Mandelblit’s office in a statement referred to the recordings as “a private conversation between close friends from over five years ago.”
“There is no connection between these things and the professional decisions made by the attorney general in investigation cases. The decisions were made in an orderly and professional process, solely according to the evidence and the law,” the statement said. “Working relations between Mandelblit and the former state attorney, Shai Nitzan, were excellent, and the two worked in full cooperation.”
In July, a state prosecution ombudsman criticized Nitzan for his failure to clear Mandelblit, saying police and prosecutors had displayed “improper conduct” in their failure to declare that the case was closed due to an absence of guilt.
Justice David Rozen said Nitzan had not acted with the required transparency in the case, despite Mandelblit’s request to officially mark the reason for the closing of the probe into the affair a decade ago.
Nave and Mandelbit were close acquaintances, and the attorney general recused himself from dealing with Nave’s own criminal cases in which he is suspected of advocating for judicial appointments in return for sex.
Nave was also indicted in 2018 on suspicion that he smuggled a female acquaintance out of the country for a trip abroad, and then tried to slip her back unregistered through border control.
The Harpaz affair resurfaced in May after a journalist broke a gag order to raise questions about Mandelblit’s conduct in the scandal.
Earlier, in February, Channel 13 news published recordings of phone calls from 2010 revealing that Mandelblit sought to steer clear of the case, and that this desire may have inadvertently helped others who were under suspicion.
Mandelblit in January indicted Netanyahu with bribery, fraud and breach of trust charges for which the prime minister is currently on trial. Netanyahu denies any wrongdoing and he and his supporters allege a conspiracy by law enforcement and the media seeking to force him from power.
In June, State Comptroller Matanyahu Englman rejected a request by a lawmaker from Netanyahu’s Likud party to launch a probe into Mandelblit’s appointment due to the Harpaz affair.