Even if defendant delegitimizes system, you put on a facade

Ex-AG Mandelblit says Netanyahu’s attacks didn’t affect charges or plea deal talks

Former top judicial official says decisions to probe, indict ex-PM were hardest of his term, but protests did little to move needle; he never asked Netanyahu to call off protests

Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu (L) and then-cabinet secretary Avichai Mandelblit at the weekly government conference, at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem, on December 13, 2015. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu (L) and then-cabinet secretary Avichai Mandelblit at the weekly government conference, at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem, on December 13, 2015. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Former attorney general Avichai Mandelblit said Monday that former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’ efforts to delegitimize the judicial system did not play a role in his decision-making, including regarding a possible plea bargain.

Mandelblit, who retired at the end of January, was subject to withering attacks from Netanyahu and his allies over his decision to indict the then-premier on bribery, fraud and breach of trust charges in three separate cases. President Isaac Herzog described the challenges faced by Mandelblit Monday as “record-breaking.”

But the former attorney general said the criticism had nothing to do with his willingness to haggle with Netanyahu over a possible plea bargain.

“My door was always open, and that’s always been policy, in other cases as well,” he told a crowd gathered for a retirement ceremony. “You can’t make decisions based on criticism — there’s no such thing as it not being possible to reach a deal with a defendant. Even if they delegitimized the law enforcement system … you have to put a facade.”

Talks over a possible deal with Netanyahu eventually fell apart, apparently over a dispute regarding whether a punishment would include a suspension from political life, though Mandelblit was accused of being pressured into considering a deal. He was also criticized for allowing other politicians to plead out in the waning days of his term, which some saw as him rushing to clear any outstanding cases before retirement.

Mandelblit was appointed by Netanyahu, who had earlier tapped him as cabinet secretary, and he said ordering an investigation and eventual indictment against his former boss was among the hardest things he had to do as attorney general, due to his “personal appreciation” for the Likud leader.

“The decision [to open the investigation] was made professionally based on evidence and witnesses. I’m at peace with the decision,” he said.

Avichai Mandelblit attends a conference of the Association of Corporate Counsel, in Tel Aviv, June 29, 2021. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

During the initial probe into now-opposition leader Netanyahu, Mandelblit was assailed by voices from the left who accused him of dragging out the investigation. Then, after he eventually pressed charges in three cases for which Netanyahu is currently on trial, he faced a relentless barrage of accusations from Netanyahu and his supporters on the right claiming the charges were a conspiracy by police, the justice system and a left-leaning media aiming to see the prime minister replaced.

Mandelblit decried the protests again him, which included haranguing him outside of his synagogue or in his Petah Tikva neighborhood as beyond the pale of acceptability, though he said they did little to move him.

“It’s legitimate to protest and make claims. But the ability of these protests to actually change anything is not high,” he said. “There are legitimate protests, but its not legitimate to follow someone to synagogue, bother them while they are shopping and certainly not to vandalize his father’s grave. That crossed all red lines.”

The vandalized grave of the father of state prosecutor Avichai Mandelblit, December 28, 2018. (Adam Shuldman/FLASH90)

He made oblique references to an effort “to appoint a new justice minister illegally,” and a “measure over a very limited period in which I identified efforts designed to undermine the legitimacy of the institution of attorney general.”

Speaking at the same Bar Association ceremony, Justice Minister Gideon Sa’ar praised Mandelblit for “standing in the breach, day after day, under heavy fire, under an onslaught of slander, lies and fakery because of the decision you made and your authority.”

“If you hadn’t stood in the breach, I don’t want to finish the sentence. You understood what was on your shoulders, what you were guarding and I thank you,” he added.

Demonstrators protest near the home of Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit in Petah Tikva on August 5, 2017. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

During his term, Mandelblit warned repeatedly that the attacks on him and law enforcement could undermine Israel’s democratic institutions.

Asked Monday if he ever asked Netanyahu to stop the protests, he said he did not.

“To his credit, until the last days there were still working meetings,” he said of Netanyahu. “There was the ability to differentiate between personal issues, which were certainly in the air, and the legal counsel I provide.”

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