Loyalist or prosecutor? Netanyahu graft probes put AG in uneasy spotlight
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Loyalist or prosecutor? Netanyahu graft probes put AG in uneasy spotlight

As the PM's former cabinet secretary, Avichai Mandelblit ought to recuse himself from the investigations, some charge; but the state's top lawyer denies bias

Marissa Newman is The Times of Israel political correspondent.

Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit attends a Constitution, Law and Justice Committee meeting in the Knesset, July 18, 2016. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit attends a Constitution, Law and Justice Committee meeting in the Knesset, July 18, 2016. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

In his office in East Jerusalem, a mild-mannered legal authority will be contemplating in the coming weeks what may be the toughest decision of his professional life: whether evidence against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warrants the first indictment of a sitting prime minister in Israel’s 69-year history.

As the investigations into Netanyahu’s alleged misdeeds deepen and near-daily leaks pepper the evening news broadcasts, it remains unclear, for now, whether the premier has engaged in any criminal activity.

But in the interim, some left-wing activists and lawmakers have been attempting to thrust the media-shy Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit front-and-center, accusing him of being in the prime minister’s pocket and calling on him to recuse himself from the case due to his past role as Netanyahu’s cabinet secretary.

While weighing his next moves and the fate of the prime minister, and possibly that of the governing coalition, Mandelblit this week stepped into the fray to dismiss the charges of bias leveled against him, describing himself as cloistered in the Justice Ministry and impervious to the mounting public debate and pressure.

“We close the windows on Salah a-Din Street in Jerusalem and focus on enforcing the law,” he said on Monday during a commencement address in the coastal city of Netanya. “The background noise from outside, from those who want to shift our position — to either side — does not penetrate, does not affect. These are foreign considerations — they must not have an effect.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (L) speaks with his former cabinet secretary Avichai Mandelblit (now attorney general) during the weekly government conference in Jerusalem, on December 20, 2015. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (L) speaks with his former cabinet secretary Avichai Mandelblit (now attorney general) during the weekly government conference in Jerusalem, on December 20, 2015. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Loyalist? Witness? Or ‘impartial’?

Putting the pun in punditry, Israeli media commentators frequently resort to labeling attorney generals deemed under the thumb of prime minister as the “family” government attorney (in Hebrew, replacing the term Hayoetz hamishpati lamemshala with Hayoetz hamishpahti lamemshala). Mandelblit and his predecessor Yehuda Weinstein have not been spared this brickbat.

Earlier this week, shifting the focus to Mandelblit, activist Eldad Yaniv wrote a letter to police urging them to make the attorney general a witness in the so-called “Case 2000,” which deals with recordings of Netanyahu and Yedioth publisher Arnon “Noni” Mozes hashing out an alleged quid pro quo. The reported agreement, which was not implemented, would have seen the prime minister advance legislation to curb the circulation of the Sheldon Adelson-backed free daily Israel Hayom, in exchange for more favorable coverage in Yedioth. Both Netanyahu and Mozes have been questioned under caution multiple times by police in the affair.

Activist Eldad Yaniv in Tel Aviv on February 8, 2015 (Ben Kelmer/FLASH90)
Activist Eldad Yaniv in Tel Aviv on February 8, 2015 (Ben Kelmer/FLASH90)

Netanyahu has denied any wrongdoing in the two investigations against him, noting in a Facebook post earlier this week that he had voted against the Israel Hayom bill (which would have banned free dailies), dissolved the government over the “subversion” within the coalition in supporting the proposal, and included a provision in the coalition agreements in the current government to ensure the bill would not be revived.

(Police are also investigating, separately, whether Netanyahu and his family received lucrative gifts from wealthy benefactors while in office.)

As cabinet secretary during that period, tasked with setting the agenda and coordinating with ministers on proposed legislation, Mandelblit must have had inside information on the Mozes case and Netanyahu’s stance on the Israel Hayom law, Yaniv argued.

“Noni went in and out of the office,” he wrote in a Facebook post on Monday, “12 times. In this period, when the rebellious ministers were voting against Bibi and in favor of the Israel Hayom law. Bibi decides to advance elections because of Israel Hayom. To fire the rebellious ministers. Chaos in the office. The same office in which Mandelblit is the senior official.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (right) and Yedioth Ahronoth publisher Noni Mozes (composite image: Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (right) and Yedioth Ahronoth publisher Noni Mozes (composite image: Flash90)

“Mandelblit saw everything. Heard everything. Touched everything. There is no scenario in which Mandelblit was not involved in consultations to advance the elections over Israel Hayom… What all this means: Mandelblit is an essential witness for the police investigation. Period.”

‘Mandelblit saw everything. Heard everything. Touched everything’

From the Knesset, Meretz leader Zehava Galon this week led the “loyalist” charge against Mandelblit for allowing Netanyahu to retain the Communications Ministry portfolio amid the media-related allegations.

“This is precisely what a state looks like when a country’s gatekeepers become Netanyahu’s gatekeepers,” she said. “Netanyahu needs to go, and he needs to take the attorney general with him.”

Hitting back, Education Minister Naftali Bennett, one of Netanyahu’s senior coalition partners, defended Mandelblit’s conduct in the investigation, saying that he is “straight, strong, and impartial.”

Other complaints against Mandelblit include claims that he stalled in opening the investigation into the prime minister. And some media reports noted that the attorney general recused himself from partaking in debates on the parole for ex-president and convicted rapist Moshe Katsav, recently freed from prison, and probes into former Prime Minister’s Office official Gil Sheffer, accused of sex crimes.

The attorney general bowed out of those cases over his personal acquaintance with the suspects, fueling the calls for him to hand over the reins in the Netanyahu cases as well.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, cabinet secretary Avichai Mandelblit and Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein (left to right) at a cabinet meeting in Jerusalem, November 2014. (Ohad Zwigenberg/Pool)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, cabinet secretary Avichai Mandelblit and Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein (left to right) at a cabinet meeting in Jerusalem, November 2014. (Ohad Zwigenberg/Pool)

The stinging accusations of deliberate delays also recall Mandelblit’s marginal role in the so-called Harpaz affair — of which he was later cleared — in which as military advocate general he was suspected of obstruction of justice in delaying handing over incriminating documents to police.

‘We the law’

Mandelblit has mostly kept a low profile since assuming office in February 2016 — with the exception of forcefully objecting, in writing, to the so-called Regulation Bill to legalize West Bank outposts.

But in his address Monday evening, Mandelblit personally addressed the probes, adamantly denying any delays in launching the investigations. He spoke throughout in the royal “we,” aligning himself not with the prime minister, but with the other law enforcement agencies.

“When I talk about ‘we’ — that is the police, state prosecutor, attorney general,” he said.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, his wife Sara (C) and their son Yair seen with actress Kate Hudson at an event held at the home of producer Arnon Milchan (right), March 6, 2014. (Avi Ohayon/GPO/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, his wife Sara (C) and their son Yair seen with actress Kate Hudson at an event held at the home of producer Arnon Milchan (right), March 6, 2014. (Avi Ohayon/GPO/Flash90)

Mandelblit said “we” had unanimously made a “strategic” decision to focus attention on “Case 1000,” which involves gifts to the Netanyahu family from millionaire benefactors, while downplaying — for the time being — the Mozes affair, dubbed “Case 2000.” In doing so, said Mandelblit, with “relative” secrecy, the police managed to get to dozens of witnesses and gather considerable evidence in the former case.

“An immediate and premature breaking out of Case 2000 and the media outcry that it was obvious would follow, would not have allowed for organized, systematic progress in Case 1000,” he said, in defense of the perceived stalling. “It allowed the police to work intensively, to gather evidence, and to complete the probe into Case 1000 by gathering dozens of testimonies and other investigative actions, some across the sea.”

The consensus in prioritizing the gifts probe over the Mozes case was “wise, smart, and justified,” he said. “The only considerations taken into account were the best interests of the investigation and of getting to the truth — and this consideration alone,” he said.

As attorney general, he added, “I don’t have the privilege of not making decisions in these cases.”

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