The state attorney leading the corruption investigations against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu saw her promotion delayed this week, after an anonymous letter claimed it was part of a conspiracy to maintain the legal pressure on the prime minister.
On Sunday, Civil Service Commissioner Daniel Hershkowitz notified Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit and State Attorney Shai Nitzan that he was temporarily freezing the expected promotion of Liat Ben-Ari, while the letter’s claims are being considered.
Ben-Ari, who holds the taxation and economic crimes portfolio in the state prosecution’s Tel Aviv district, has led numerous high-level corruption investigations against political figures, including prime ministers Ehud Olmert and Netanyahu. She was lead prosecutor on Olmert’s Holyland corruption case, and is currently the head attorney handling the investigations into Netanyahu.
Ben-Ari was believed to be a shoo-in for the job of deputy state attorney for economic affairs, with the tender committee scheduled to vote on her candidacy on Monday.
But on Sunday, Hershkowitz received an anonymous letter claiming to have been written by “concerned prosecutors” from within the legal system and maintaining that her appointment was part of a politically motivated effort to force Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit to indict Netanyahu.
“For over a year, the position [of deputy state attorney for economic affairs] lay unoccupied, held by no one,” the letter reads, according to a copy obtained by Channel 12 news.
“Then, six months before State Attorney Shai Nitzan’s retirement, he remembers to issue a tender for the post. There is no reason why a retiring state attorney should be allowed to appoint a deputy who won’t even be his deputy. Any choice of any candidate would be suspect and illegitimate,” it says.
The letter explicitly links its opposition to Ben-Ari’s advancement to the Netanyahu probes, claiming that Nitzan, who has argued for a more aggressive approach in the corruption investigations, is attempting through Ben-Ari’s promotion to ensure that they are pursued after his departure.
“Since a state attorney’s term is six years and a deputy’s is eight, Nitzan is asking to appoint a deputy for the next two attorneys who come after him,” it says. “It’s clear that such an act — appointing a deputy moments before retiring — would not be tolerated with any other senior official in the public service. But in the state prosecution you don’t have to wait, not for a minister or for a [new] state attorney, because friends just appoint each other, the state attorney appoints his heir, and the ministers are mere decoration.”
The letter depicts a conspiracy against Mandelblit and Netanyahu.
“Shai Nitzan wants Liat Ben-Ari to remain in the system, because he and she together are pushing the aggressive line against the prime minister,” it charges. Ben-Ari’s successor at the Tel Aviv district will be “someone she trusts, who will agree with this approach.” The end result, it warns: “The attorney general,” who has the final say on indicting the prime minister, “will not be able to stand against so many people — even if he disagrees with them.”
Netanyahu has claimed repeatedly in recent months that a “weak” Mandelblit is being pressured by “left-wing” prosecutors and media outlets into indicting him. The letter appears to track closely with Netanyahu’s argument.
An unnamed Justice Ministry official slammed the letter on Monday, telling Channel 12 that it is meant to send a “dangerous” message to the legal system, since “it is clear why that specific tender is being attacked, and why that particular prosecutor is under fire — she leads the aggressive line against the prime minister” in the corruption probes.
Hershkowitz, the civil service commissioner who froze the tender on Monday, told Mandelblit and Nitzan that his decision to delay the tender “is to protect you from the claim that the prosecution is taking advantage. Please respond to the claims and we can continue with the tender.”
Netanyahu faces looming indictments for fraud and breach of trust in three criminal cases, and bribery in one of them. One case involves gifts from wealthy associates, while the other two concern quid pro quo deals with news outlet owners in which Netanyahu allegedly promised regulatory favors in exchange for positive media coverage.
Mandelblit announced in February that he intended to indict the prime minister in all three, pending a hearing.
The prime minister denies all the allegations. He has taken the position that the investigation, the subsequent police recommendation to charge him, and Mandelblit’s decision to press charges pending a final hearing, constitute a witch hunt and a political vendetta pursued by the political opposition, the media, the police and the state prosecution.