Premier condemns remark; Mandelblit: threats won't deter me

Netanyahu ally threatens more dirt will air about AG if he doesn’t resign

Miki Zohar criticized after saying that recording of Mandelblit slamming then-state attorney supports unsubstantiated theory he was blackmailed into filing charges against PM

Likud MK and chairman of the Knesset Regulatory Committee Miki Zohar at the Knesset, September 9, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/FLASH90)
Likud MK and chairman of the Knesset Regulatory Committee Miki Zohar at the Knesset, September 9, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/FLASH90)

Coalition whip Miki Zohar, a staunch ally of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, railed against Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit on Wednesday morning, calling for his resignation and warning that if he doesn’t, more damaging recordings could soon be published after a TV report aired taped phone conversations in which Mandelblit is heard complaining bitterly about Shai Nitzan, the state attorney at the time, for failing to close a criminal case against him.

The threat that additional recordings would be published if the attorney general doesn’t step down and withdraw charges against the prime minister was condemned by Netanyahu and by Mandelblit himself.

The release of the tapes by Channel 12 on Tuesday was seen by allies of Netanyahu — whom Mandelblit indicted on corruption charges earlier this year — as supporting an unsubstantiated conspiracy theory that the attorney general had been blackmailed by the state attorney, prosecutors and police into filing the charges as part of a “witch hunt” aimed at ousting the premier.

The newly aired recordings, while highlighting a beef between Mandelblit and Nitzan years before the Netanyahu investigations began, do not provide evidence for any such blackmail.

Nevertheless, Zohar told Radio 103FM: “We are just waiting for more of the truth to come out, proving that what we have been saying is true, about corrupt coordination between Shai Nitzan and Avichai Mandelblit, who was in fact blackmailed by Shai Nitzan into filing the indictments against Netanyahu at any price.”

When an interviewer pointed out that Mandelblit only filed a bribery charge in one of the three cases against Netanyahu, while Nitzan had wanted bribery charges in all three, Zohar claimed that was also coordinated.

“They knew exactly where they were going, Shai Nitzan knew all of the cases added up to nothing but wanted to get the desired result in at least one case,” he said.

Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit, left, and outgoing state prosecutor Shai Nitzan attend a farewell ceremony held for Nitzan in Jerusalem, on December 18, 2019. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Zohar said the leaked recording was just the beginning, and that “I can guarantee that more things will be revealed soon. If he doesn’t resign, it will be an earthquake. There will be no choice for Mandelblit but to resign and rescind the indictments against Netanyahu.”

He refused to detail the additional material, but said there were more recorded conversations and that Nitzan was sitting on information that could “put Mandelblit behind bars.”

Asked how the fact that Mandelblit had been angry at Nitzan years before the investigations against Netanyahu began proved the blackmail theory, Zohar said: “It’s very simple, you want your own case closed because you know it endangers your position as attorney general… This issue remained in the hands of Shai Nitzan, and the very fact that Shai Nitzan never made a decision on the matter is what enabled Mandelblit to remain in his position.”

The case against Mandelblit was never fully closed by Nitzan, whose term as state attorney ended earlier this year.

Zohar further claimed that Nitzan — a Netanyahu appointee who was praised at the time by the premier — has in fact been “an extreme leftist and hater of the right for all of his life” and wanted the charges filed against the premier “for purely political reasons.”

When an interviewer noted that Nitzan, like Mandelblit, is a religious man — few Orthodox Israelis are left-wing — who was appointed by Netanyahu, Zohar contradicted his previous statement that Nitzan was a lifelong leftist, saying instead that he had “completely changed, I don’t know what he believes anymore.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) with Likud MK Miki Zohar. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Zohar was criticized for his remark, with sources in Benny Gantz’s Blue and White coalition party quoted by Hebrew-language media as saying Zohar should be ousted as coalition chairman.

“He undermines the government’s stability on a daily basis, and any additional day in which he stays in the job is pushing us toward elections. Israel deserves better,” a source reportedly said.

Zohar insisted on Twitter that he hadn’t threatened Mandelblit, but added: “The revelations in recent months reflect total rot and trumped up charges. If [Mandelblit] has any self-respect, he should resign.”

Netanyahu issued a statement distancing himself from Zohar’s threat.

“Miki Zohar’s remarks were made without the prime minister’s knowledge and they do not reflect his opinion,” the Prime Minister’s Office said. “The prime minister hasn’t spoken on the matter with MK Zohar. The prime minister disagrees with the unacceptable comments.”

Mandelblit’s office responded that “threats will not deter the attorney general from doing his job,” calling the claim that he was blackmailed or otherwise affected by ulterior motives “ridiculous and baseless” and adding that the charges were prepared by many people and are currently being scrutinized by a panel of judges.

Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit attends an event at the Dan Hotel in Jerusalem on February 6, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

“As clarified yesterday, there is no link or connection between words uttered out of anger in a private conversation between friends years ago, when Dr. Mandelblit was offended by the treatment he was receiving, and the cases related to the prime minister and others,” the attorney general’s office added.

A lawyer, Gonen Ben Yitzhak, filed a police complaint against Zohar following the remark, alleging that he was blackmailing Mandelblit and obstructing justice. Mandelblit said a member of the state prosecution would deal with the complaint in his stead due to conflict of interest.

The two recorded calls that were aired Tuesday evening and sparked the uproar took place between Mandelblit and the head of the Israel Bar Association at the time, Efi Nave, in 2015 and 2016.

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 either declare the case closed due to lack of evidence — implying there may have been wrongdoing on Mandelblit’s part — or to exonerate him completely.

For Mandelblit, who was cabinet secretary at the time of the first 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 noted that the lack of an exoneration could jeopardize a future appointment to the Supreme Court for Mandelblit.

Former State Attorney Shai Nitzan speaks at the Calcalist conference in Tel Aviv on December 31, 2019. (Miriam Alster/FLASH90)

“Do you understand that that jerk isn’t making a decision on my case?” Mandelblit can be heard telling Nave, referring to Nitzan. “I don’t know what to do with him.”

“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. 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 that 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.

Israel Bar Association former chairman Efi Nave is seen at a Tel Aviv court on January 16, 2019. (Koko/Pool/Flash90)

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.

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.

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.

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