AG: Netanyahu may eventually need to be suspended as PM for conflict of interest

Avichai Mandelblit tells magazine he ‘nearly fell off a chair’ when he heard of alleged quid pro quo; prime minister’s lawyer accuses attorney general of obstructing justice

Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit speaks during an event at Bar Ilan University, March 4, 2020. (Flash90)
Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit speaks during an event at Bar Ilan University, March 4, 2020. (Flash90)

Attorney General Avichai Mandeblit said he has not ruled out the possibility that Prime Minister Netanyahu may have to be suspended as premier if he seeks to use his prime ministerial authority to try to influence the criminal proceedings he is currently facing in court.

Speaking to the ultra-Orthodox Mishpacha magazine in comments aired Tuesday, Mandelblit, who has previously stated that Netanyahu does not have to step down, said the prime minister could, in theory, have to be suspended due to a conflict of interest.

“When you use your executive power as prime minister to influence your criminal [cases], that creates a serious problem,” Mandelblit was heard saying in recordings of the interview released by Channel 12 news.

“How do you handle that problem? If we can’t, it’s possible we will really come to recusing [Netanyahu],” Mandelblit said, but would not give an estimate as to when or whether such a development might happen.

The full interview is set to be published Wednesday.

He added: “It’s not math. I’m not rushing to anything, and I’m trying to be very considered and very calm.”

In an apparent reference to the attacks against him by the prime minister and his allies, Mandelblit said: “I always count to a thousand, and not to ten. I can’t allow — I won’t behave like those on social media.”

He stressed that Netanyahu was not “doing me a favor” by agreeing to sign a binding conflict-of-interest deal as part of the arrangements for him to remain in office while on trial.

“I don’t accept that he says ‘I’ll volunteer to place limitations upon myself.’ No. You must limit yourself… I’m not innocent or naive, I’m sure it won’t be 100 percent, but we do need this commitment that he is not dealing, for instance, with appointments to law enforcement, not dealing with amending legislation that touches on his personal issues, while abusing his power. That mustn’t be allowed,” Mandelblit said.

The attorney general was also heard describing his surprise at learning of one of Netanyahu’s cases, which involves an alleged attempt to reach a quid pro quo agreement with a top newspaper publisher for positive media coverage.

Publisher and owner of the Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper Arnon ‘Noni’ Mozes arrives for questioning at the Lahav 433 investigation unit in Lod on January 15, 2017. (Koko/Flash90)

“I nearly fell off my chair when I saw that, it is not something that didn’t surprise me,” he said of so-called Case 2000, one of the three criminal cases against Netanyahu, in which he is accused of attempting to reach an agreement on positive coverage with Yedioth Ahronoth publisher Arnon Mozes in return for pushing legislation to hobble rival newspaper Israel Hayom.

He added that he is far from happy to be in his position of indicting a sitting premier. “I get up every morning and my heart aches” over it, Mandelblit said.

In the recordings, Mandelblit is heard hinting he will not agree to a plea bargain in Netanyahu’s trial, saying that for the sake of the public the case needs to be dealt with quickly.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gives a briefing on coronavirus developments in Israel at his office in Jerusalem, on September 13, 2020. (Yoav Dudkevitch / POOL / AFP)

Regarding Netanyahu’s claims that the proceedings against him are a political witch hunt, Mandelblit stressed that the indictments were only against Netanyahu and not any political bodies or causes.

The issue is “the personal actions of Mr. Benjamin Netanyahu, he is personally charged with criminal activity,” Mandeblit said.

A statement from Netanyahu’s defense team accused Mandelblit of attempting to obstruct justice.

“The idea that an office holder, as senior as he is, who is himself in a conflict of interest, would decide on the suspension of a sitting prime minister, is anti-Democratic, an attempt to subvert the will of the voters and totally against the Basic Law in the government,” the statement read, according to the Ynet news site.

Other Netanyahu allies also responded to the tapes, attacking Mandelblit.

Coalition whip Miki Zohar tweeted that Mandelblit’s recordings were deliberately made “to convey a message to the prime minister and to whitewash his [Mandelblit’s] scandalous decisions to file unfounded indictments that have not been filed in any democracy.”

Transportation Minister Miri Regev tweeted that Mandleblit’s remarks were a “recusal of democracy.”

“Whoever wants to recuse Netanyahu is seeking to recuse millions of right-wing voters, who thrice voted for Netanyahu as the prime minister and will continue to choose him as their representative,” she wrote.

Transportation Minister Miri Regev, who lowered her face mask to speak, during a press conference at the Transportation Ministry in Jerusalem on July 8, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Earlier this month, Mandelblit was reported to be holding talks with senior officials about the possibility of requiring Netanyahu to step down over his attacks on the justice system as his trial progresses. Mandelblit’s office denied this was the case, and restated his previous position that the prime minister need not suspend himself.

According to a Haaretz report at the time, Mandelblit believes that Netanyahu’s use of government resources to push his case to the public — including calling press conferences ostensibly about the coronavirus emergency which are then used to question the reliability of law enforcement — could constitute a conflict of interest.

Netanyahu has said he is the victim of a wide-ranging conspiracy seeking his ouster — involving the left-wing opposition, media, police and state prosecutors — and called the allegations baseless.

Netanyahu’s trial on charges of accepting bribes, fraud and breach of trust opened in May in the Jerusalem District Court. In addition to Case 2000, the prime minister is accused of accepting expensive gifts from wealthy friends in what is known as Case 1000; and in Case 3000, Netanyahu is accused of pushing regulatory favors for the benefit of the Walla news website owner, also in exchange for positive media coverage.

The court will begin to hear testimony from witnesses in the trial in January.

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