Lapid: Netanyahu trying to 'turn Israel into a dictatorship'

In unprecedented harangue, Netanyahu accuses Mandelblit of scheming to oust him

Watchdog to file incitement complaint against PM over Twitter diatribe against AG, who earlier told comptroller to block NIS 10 million ‘gift’ for PM’s legal defense

Michael Bachner is a news editor at The Times of Israel

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, and Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit, in a composite photo. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, and Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit, in a composite photo. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Tuesday night launched a scathing, unprecedented attack against Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit, whom he appointed and who served previously as his chief of staff, accusing him of being part of a deep-state conspiracy scheme aiming to oust him for political reasons.

Netanyahu was slammed by his rivals over the accusations, which he made in a series of tweets and retweets, and a watchdog said it would file a police complaint for incitement.

Mandelblit earlier in the day told the Permits Committee at the State Comptroller’s Office that he opposed Netanyahu’s request to receive some NIS 10 million ($2.9 million) in outside funding for his legal defense in his corruption trial, saying the donation was tantamount to an illicit gift.

Netanyahu has asked the oversight committee to allow the donation from Spencer Partrich, a Michigan-based real estate magnate. Because Partrich also happens to be a witness in one of the cases, the committee has asked the country’s attorney general for his opinion on the matter.

Netanyahu had responded to Mandelblit’s decision to turn down his request via “close associates,” saying that “once again it is revealed that there is one law for Netanyahu and another for everyone else. This is what a political investigation looks like, ending with a political indictment.”

On Tuesday evening, Channel 13 quoted an unnamed senior source in the Justice Ministry responding to Netanyahu’s initial reaction.

“These are blatant lies by Netanyahu and the ministers,” the source said. “They are continuing the delegitimization campaign against the law enforcement system, and judges will be next. They are repeating absurd and false mantras and are knowingly lying to the public. Our spirit won’t be broken.”

“If Netanyahu wants a [NIS] 10 million gift from a friend, he is welcome to resign and then he will be able to receive even [NIS] 20 million,” the source added. “This is a particularly high sum that we have no reason to approve. It’s an illicit gift.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, with then-cabinet secretary and current attorney general Avichai Mandelblit, on May 26, 2015. (Marc Israel Sellem/ Pool/ Flash90)

In the two hours following that report, Netanyahu’s official Twitter account tweeted and retweeted nine posts excoriating the attorney general.

“Mandelblit’s scheme to topple the leadership is exposed in all its ugliness,” Netanyahu tweeted. “Amazingly and shamefully, senior Justice Ministry officials today called on Prime Minister Netanyahu to resign as a condition for being able to defend himself against the baseless indictment Mandelblit tailored against him.”

“Mandelblit is trying to reverse the democratic decision of millions of citizens who chose Benjamin Netanyahu as prime minister,” he claimed.

Opposition Chief Yair Lapid (Yesh Atid-Telem) commented that “the only attempted coup is Netanyahu’s attempt to turn Israel into a dictatorship, and his criminal attempt to turn Mandelblit into a target of threats and incitement.”

Yesh Atid-Telem No. 2 Moshe Ya’alon issued a similar warning.

“Netanyahu, this will end in bloodshed! You won’t be able to say your hands didn’t spill this blood,” Ya’alon said.

The Movement for Quality Government in Israel, a watchdog group, called Netanyahu’s post “incitement” and alleged that it “called open season” on the attorney general. It said it would file a police complaint against the premier on Wednesday morning.

Netanyahu’s trial on charges of fraud, breach of trust and accepting bribes opened last month in a Jerusalem court. The accusations include accepting some $200,000 in gifts such as cigars and champagne from two billionaires, Hollywood-based Israeli movie mogul Arnon Milchan and Australian magnate James Packer.

Arnon Milchan (center) with Shimon Peres (left) and Benjamin Netanyahu, on March 28, 2005. (Flash90/File)

Netanyahu is also accused of offering to push legislation benefiting powerful Israeli media moguls in exchange for more positive coverage in their publications. Netanyahu has said he is the victim of a wide-ranging conspiracy and called the allegations baseless, saying accepting gifts from friends isn’t a problem.

Netanyahu’s most senior coalition partner, Defense Minister Benny Gantz, came to Mandelblit’s defense Tuesday, saying in a statement that he gives his “full backing to the attorney general’s decision, along with the entire law enforcement system in Israel.”

“They will continue to perform their job without fear, with professionalism and determination. We established this government in light of the coronavirus crisis and on that we will focus,” he added.

Justice Minister Avi Nissenkorn of Gantz’s Blue and White party addressed the criticism more directly, saying, “Mandelblit is not persecuting anyone. He is simply doing his job. An attack on the gatekeepers harms our democracy, and harming our democracy will violate the rights of every citizen in the State of Israel.”

Spencer Partrich (Courtesy)

For his multi-million-dollar legal defense fees, Netanyahu has turned both to his wealthy American cousin Nathan Milikowsky and to Partrich.

The attorney general is looking into a murky company share deal with Milikowsky that reportedly netted Netanyahu an exorbitant return on investment.

The approval process for Netanyahu’s request to receive the funding revealed that he had already received a $300,000 donation from Milikowsky, as well as suits and cigars from Partrich, which he did not receive permission for and was ordered to repay, according to the Permits Committee. The committee also asked repeatedly for Netanyahu to declare his assets, which he did not do, according to official documents released by the committee earlier this month.

Last year, it declined his request for the NIS 10 million from Partrich, saying it was inappropriate given the fact that he is facing charges relating to gifts he received from oversees financiers, the documents show. The committee said its decision was final.

But when a new committee was formed under Netanyahu’s hand-picked state comptroller, it took up the request again, citing “a significant change in circumstances” that arose following Netanyahu’s indictment in January, according to the committee documents. It has since been awaiting the attorney general’s opinion.

Netanyahu has already been allowed to accept a $570,000 loan from Partrich, the documents show.

Nathan Milikowsky in 2013, in San Francisco (Drew Altizer Photography)

Netanyahu is a multimillionaire, thanks to best-selling books, real estate holdings and lucrative speaking fees while in the private sector.

Netanyahu has for decades socialized with the ultra-wealthy and his supporters say he has given up opportunities to amass great wealth to serve the country instead. But he and his wife have gained a reputation for enjoying the good life, repeatedly landing in hot water for misappropriating state funds.

The indictment against Netanyahu highlights his ties. A number of well-known billionaires appear on the list of 333 potential witnesses, including Milchan and Packer, as well as US casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, a longtime Netanyahu supporter, and Oracle Corp. co-founder and chairman Larry Ellison.

Witness number 283 is Partrich. According to the Permits Committee decision from last year, his relationship with Netanyahu stretches back to 1999, just as Netanyahu’s first term as prime minister was ending.

“Even if afterwards a personal friendship developed, at their core the ties between the two were formed as a relationship between a mogul and a senior politician,” the committee wrote.

Times of Israel staff and AP contributed to this report.

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