The High Court of Justice on Thursday issued a temporary injunction preventing a three-month extension of the tenure of acting State Attorney Dan Eldad, which Justice Minister Amir Ohana had been expected to announce later in the day.
The court issued the ruling in response to a petition by a group of lawyers who said it was “unreasonable” for the justice minister to extend the controversial Eldad’s tenure during a transitional government.
The court gave respondents, including Ohana, two weeks to respond. It also said a replacement for Eldad could not be appointed during that time. With Eldad’s tenure expiring Monday, it was unclear who would serve in the post until a final ruling is made.
Petitioners asserted that the senior position had been “hijacked” by Ohana, a close ally of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, as the latter faces trial in three criminal cases. They said Eldad was now in an unreasonable conflict of interest, with his continued tenure depending on a confidant of Netanyahu as his office prepares to take the prime minister to court.
Eldad was appointed to the post by Ohana in a temporary capacity in February for a three-month period, after former state attorney Shai Nitzan concluded his five-year term in December and after Ohana’s previous candidate was rejected by Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit. A permanent appointment cannot be made under a transitional government. Though a government bringing together the Likud and Blue and White parties is currently in the works, it has not yet been formed.
Mandelblit opposed Eldad’s appointment, seeing him as unsuited for the post, but acquiesced to Ohana’s decision. However Mandelblit has since entered into an unprecedented quarrel with Eldad, reportedly convinced he and Ohana are bent on ousting him from his post, possibly with the help of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
In an extraordinary letter to Civil Service Commissioner Daniel Hershkowitz last week, Mandelblit expressed vehement opposition to extending Eldad’s tenure, saying he had exhibited “moral, professional and administrative failings” during his short time in office. He also said there were legal impediments to doing so, due to the fact that Ohana will likely leave the ministry within days.
A senior Justice Ministry official told Haaretz Monday that Mandelblit had asked colleagues in the State Attorney’s Office to keep him in the loop after Eldad entered the post, apparently still concerned over the appointment.
The attorney general’s concerns about the acting prosecutor were heightened when Eldad quickly ordered the opening of a criminal probe into the Fifth Dimension firm — once headed by Blue and White chairman Benny Gantz — before he even consulted the police body that had looked into the allegations against the company, the official was quoted as saying.
Further irking Mandelblit were what he deemed to be the uncharacteristically frequent meetings Eldad was having with Ohana. So concerned had the attorney general — who indicted Netanyahu on corruption charges last November — become about those sit-downs that he began quizzing the state prosecutor on their content, comparing the answers received to the information he had been getting from colleagues briefed on those same conversations, the report said.
In his letter to Hershkowitz Mandelblit said he believed Ohana had given him only partial and sometimes false reports when explicitly asked on the matters he had discussed with Ohana.
The attorney general’s suspicions intensified earlier this month when Eldad asked his office to reexamine an opinion it gave in support of keeping the so-called Harpaz Affair closed. Mandelblit was a suspect in the 2010 case but eventually was cleared of wrongdoing by the High Court of Justice.
Mandelblit told associates that he suspects Eldad leaked a recording to a Channel 13 reporter who subsequently petitioned the Central District Court to release all tapes from the Harpaz Affair.
In response, Eldad said Mandelbit’s criticism of him was “unfounded” and claimed the attorney general was reacting to “worrying” information Eldad had unearthed about him in the affair. “From day one… Avichai Mandelblit did everything possible to sabotage my work and interfere with my proper conduct.”
The coalition agreement between Netanyahu and Gantz prevents any senior appointments from being made in the first six months of the coalition. It also grants Netanyahu veto power over the appointment of a permanent state attorney as well as Mandelblit’s successor.
Netanyahu has been charged with fraud and breach of trust in three criminal cases — as well as bribery in one of them — that center on accusations he received illegal gifts and traded political favors for positive news coverage.
He denies wrongdoing and has dismissed the charges against him as a conspiracy by law enforcement, the media and political rivals to force him from office. His trial is set to open on May 24.
Ohana, since his appointment last year, has railed repeatedly against the state prosecution.
In late February, several Hebrew media outlets reported that Netanyahu may seek to dismiss the attorney general or to seriously discredit him after the election held on March 2. Haaretz reported at the time that emissaries for Netanyahu had been working to dig up dirt on Mandelblit — particularly on his part in the Harpaz affair.
In the Harpaz Affair, a former IDF intelligence officer close to then-IDF chief Gabi Ashkenazi produced a fake document purporting to be a public relations strategy for then-Southern Command chief Yoav Gallant’s campaign to become the next chief of staff.
The fake document recommended a smear campaign against Gallant’s rivals, including then-deputy chief of staff Benny Gantz, who would go on to be appointed Israel’s 20th IDF chief of staff in 2011 and later become Netanyahu’s chief rival for the premiership.
Mandelblit, who was the top military prosecutor at the time, was questioned under caution in June 2014, when he was already out of uniform and serving as Netanyahu’s cabinet secretary. Investigators suspected that Mandelblit may have helped Ashkenazi and his aides to hinder investigators by failing to tell them that Ashkenazi possessed the document — or indeed, that Ashkenazi was spreading it within the army and working to have it leaked to the press. He was eventually cleared.
Netanyahu went on to nominate Mandelblit as attorney general, with his appointment approved in January 2016.