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Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit at a conference in Jerusalem on February 5, 2018. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit at a conference in Jerusalem on February 5, 2018. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Profile'His biggest pressure is the pressure of his own conscience'

Mandelblit in the middle: He’ll seal Netanyahu’s fate and maybe shape Israel’s

The AG, who must decide whether and when to indict the PM, was attacked for fierce loyalty to the letter of the law long before Netanyahu chose him — twice — for senior positions

Raphael Ahren is the diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

Main image by Yonatan Sindel / Flash90

It may not be hyperbole to say that Israel’s future lies, to a considerable extent, in the hands of Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit.

As the head of the state’s prosecution apparatus — “the foremost champion of the rule of law and guardian of the public interest,” as the Foreign Ministry defines his position — Mandelblit has the exclusive power to decide whether to indict Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on corruption charges or close the three cases against him.

Mandelblit, who grew up secular, became Orthodox and today is beloved by Israel’s Reform movement, has been both hailed and harassed for his tenacious allegiance to the letter of the law.

Soft-spoken, yet determined, determining the fate of the man who appointed him — twice — to senior government positions, yet showing no signs of partiality for his former boss, Mandelblit cuts the figure of a man more fiercely loyal to ideals than to any individual.

In the next few months, with attacks on him expected to ramp up yet further as he nears a decision on indicting the prime minister, the thickness of his skin and his commitment to those ideals will be put to the ultimate test. The widespread expectation that he will invite Netanyahu to a pretrial hearing, reportedly some time next month, will likely take the attempts by the prime minister’s loyalists to delegitimize and discredit him to a whole new level.

It is obvious that the announcement of an indictment — pending a hearing — would have a significant impact on the upcoming Knesset election, though it is far from obvious what that impact will be. Voters may not want to cast their ballot for a candidate accused of bribery, and even if enough do and again make Netanyahu’s Likud the largest party, Mandelblit’s decision could lead potential coalition partners to say they no longer want to sit in his government, thus bringing to an end Netanyahu’s decade-long premiership.

Alternatively, the prime minister’s depiction of himself as a great leader under a politically motivated assault may galvanize great support for him and the Likud; his party has held firm, and even risen in the polls, as the legal embroilments have gotten deeper.

Mandelblit, 55, has been under tremendous pressure from various sides: Netanyahu and his political allies want him to close all the cases, of course, but if not, are urging him not to announce a decision to pursue an indictment before the election, because it will not be possible to conclude the time-consuming hearing process before Israelis head to the polls.

The prime minister’s opponents, on the other hand, have long called on the attorney general to conclude his two-year-long investigation and to publicize his verdict as soon as possible.

Emotions are running so high that even the dead are not safe: Last month the grave of the attorney general’s late father, Baruch “Mickey” Mandelblit, was vandalized.

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

In comments broadcast Thursday on Israel’s Hadashot TV news, Mandelblit insisted he was unmoved by the pressure.

“I need to do my work as quickly as possible, although of course without compromising thoroughness and professionalism,” he said. Pressed on whether he intended to publish his conclusions before the elections, and whether it was important to do so, his response would surely have come as no comfort to Netanyahu: “I am working as quickly as possible in order to get the work done and make the findings public — on condition that I am comfortable [with the findings] personally and professionally. Ultimately, it’s a question of professionalism.”

Many people familiar with the AG and his work say they are thoroughly convinced he will make the fateful decision on the Netanyahu file based purely on the virtues of the cases themselves. Vouching for his decency, sincerity and fairness, they believe he will be able to ignore the constant pestering from the various camps and focus on the facts.

“He won’t be influenced from any side. People can demonstrate against him, from the sides or the center — these things won’t budge even one hair on his head,” Ilan Bombach, who served with Mandelblit at the Military Advocate General’s office, recently told Channel 10. “Once a decision has been taken, it will be impossible to get him to change his mind, and no pressure will help.”

Last January, the protesters gathering regularly in Mandelblit’s hometown of Petah Tikva went as a far as disrupting him as he was attending services at a synagogue to say Kaddish, the Jewish mourning prayer, for his late mother.

Mandelblit’s bodyguards decided he should leave before the end of the services lest the incident escalate.

Demonstrators outside a synagogue in Petah Tikvah where Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit was praying, January 20, 2017 (Hadashot News screenshot; footage: Ariel Shanbel / Makor Rishon)

“I am convinced that this doesn’t influence him,” said Ilan Shef, a retired judge and close friend of Mandelblit. “In the Netanyahu cases there are all kinds of pressures, from various sides. I have no doubt that he will make the correct decision.”

But Mandelblit, a father of six, also has his share of detractors. Some right-wing critics, for instance, have long accused the Tel Aviv native of placing concerns for the rule of law, including international humanitarian law, above the Jewish people’s right to possess and defend the Land of Israel.

Nearly three decades in uniform

Mandelblit, whose father was a member of the secular right-wing Herut party, joined the IDF in the mid-1980s, and stayed there for 27 years. He started out as a military prosecutor for the ground forces command southern division and quickly rose through the ranks.

Between 2009 and 2011, Maj.-Gen Mandelblit, who had decided to become religiously observant at age 26, served as the army’s military advocate general. It was in that position that he first incurred the wrath of some far-right protesters, who in 2010 spray-painted the word “traitor” on a wall of his house.

His crime? He had dared to indict three soldiers for actions committed during Operation Cast Lead, a three-week war against Hamas in Gaza.

“The military advocate general was appropriately careful in his decisions to indict,” Haaretz’s top defense analyst Amos Harel judged at the time. “Indictments have been filed in three cases: the two soldiers who were convicted of stealing a credit card, a soldier charged with killing a Palestinian, and the two soldiers accused of using a child as a human shield.”

The hate graffiti on his wall led to an invitation for Mandelblit to the residence of then-president Shimon Peres, who fully backed the MAG’s decision.

Then-president Shimon Peres meets with then-Military Advocate General Avichai Mandelblit at the President’s office in Jerusalem, November 2010 (Mark Neyman/GPO)

“I know that you have a very responsible attitude to your work, and that you do what you do with a clear conscience and with sensitivity,” Peres told Mandelblit, according to the Jerusalem Post.

During his time as the head of the army’s legal branch, Mandelblit was accused of illicitly working on behalf of then-IDF chief of staff Gabi Ashkenazi in the so-called Harpaz affair. The police recommended an indictment against him because he supposedly delayed handing over incriminating documents to police — but the AG (his predecessor Yehuda Weinstein) closed the case a few years later.

In April 2013, Netanyahu tapped Mandelblit as his cabinet secretary. He only agreed to take the job after the prime minister promised him that he would be able to “stay out of politics,” the Wall Street Journal reported this week.

“I am certain that he brings with him many qualities – legal and others,” Netanyahu said after the cabinet unanimously approved the appointment.

Netanyahu’s trusted aide

Having traded in his army uniform for a suit and tie, Mandelblit became one of Netanyahu’s closest aides. He was so trusted, in fact, that he ran the government’s sensitive negotiations over reforms to the pluralistic prayer platform at the Western Wall.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, speaks with then-cabinet secretary Avichai Mandelblit, right, during a weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem on December 20, 2015. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

For more than two years, Mandelblit, sporting his big, black kippah, regularly met with the representatives of non-Orthodox streams of Judaism, who demanded more equality at the holy site. Surprisingly, Mandelblit succeeded in striking a deal, even though the government later froze it due to pressure from the ultra-Orthodox parties.

“I think the world of Avichai Mandelblit,” said Anat Hoffman, the head of the Women of the Wall organization. “Even though I didn’t get everything I wanted — far from it, he forced me to compromise on things I think are sacred — he did it in a way that convinced the Women of the Wall and myself that he’s acting in good faith. Integrity is hard to come by. He’s got it.”

Hoffman, who holds a senior position within Israel’s Reform movement, said she did not expect to become so fond of Mandelblit when they started negotiating.

“He’s ultra-Orthodox, a friend of Netanyahu, a general in the army — he’s got everything going against him, as far as I am concerned. And yet he won me over,” she gushed.

From left to right: Yizhar Hess, the head of Israel’s Conservative movement, Rabbi Gilad Kariv, the head of Israel’s Reform Movement, Women of the Wall head Anat Hoffman, and AG Avichai Mandelblit, at the Western Wall’s pluralistic platform (courtesy)

“He’s driven by a desire to avoid conflict and war, and he is a pursuer of justice and truth,” she went on. “He is wise, respectful, flexible; he is willing to change his mind.”

But will he be able to withstand the pressure exerted on him and make the right decision on the Netanyahu file? Hoffman believes so. “The biggest pressure Mandelblit has in his life is the pressure of his own conscience. That’s the main force of his life,” she said.

When PM praised him for ’embracing the rule of law’

On February 1, 2016, Mandelblit, who in the meantime had completed his doctorate in law, started his current job as attorney general. The appointment, which followed a recommendation by a search committee headed by former Supreme Court president Asher Grunis, is valid for six years.

There was no need for a cooling-off period between the two jobs because the position of cabinet secretary is apolitical, ministers agreed as they voted, again unanimously, in favor of his appointment.

“Avichai Mandelblit is a very worthy candidate,” Netanyahu declared at the time. The incoming AG, he went on, “embraces the traditional world understanding of the law, law enforcement and the rule of law.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (left) and Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit at a July 2015 cabinet meeting, when Mandelblit was serving as cabinet secretary. (Emil Salman/Pool)

Less than a year later, news broke that police were investigating the prime minister on two counts of alleged corruption, including bribery. He has since been accused of similar crimes in a third case. Netanyahu denies all wrongdoing, and asserts that he is the victim of a political witch-hunt involving the opposition, the media and the police, all of whom in turn, he alleges, are relentlessly pressuring Mandelblit to indict him.

The opening of those probes placed Mandelblit in a highly uncomfortable position. Critics immediately demanded he recuse himself from dealing with the matter due to his close relationship with the suspect — as he had done in two previous cases, involving the parole of former president Moshe Katsav and probes into ex-Netanyahu aide Gil Sheffer.

As cabinet secretary, Mandelblit must have been involved in some of the prime minister’s allegedly illicit dealings, charged anti-corruption activist Eldad Yaniv, one of the organizers of the weekly demonstrations outside the AG’s house. “Mandelblit is an essential witness for the police investigation,” he argued.

But Mandelblit stayed on, vowing to disregard all political and external pressures and to be guided by nothing but the letter of the law.

Failing to defend the government

Mandelblit’s term as AG has also seen another controversy: his refusal to defend the government’s contentious Regulation Law in early 2017.

That law, which legalizes Israeli West Bank settlements built on private Palestinian land, was challenged in the High Court of Justice, where it is currently being debated.

Mandelblit considers the legislation unconstitutional and hence “null and void,” arguing that it violates Palestinian rights.

A demonstrator wears a mask of Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit during a protest against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu near Mandelblit’s home in Petah Tikva on July 22, 2017. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

It is extremely rare for an AG to refuse to represent the government in court; in such circumstances, if they feel they cannot in good conscience defend a law that contravenes accepted global legal norms, attorneys general can let the state choose a private defense attorney to do the job, as happened in the case of the Regulation Law.

The fact that, nearly two years later, the court has not struck down the law, however, clearly shows that it is not so easy to dismiss it as unconstitutional, some observers charged in off-record conversations. By extension, they alleged, the AG’s decision not to defend it in court is based on political considerations.

It’s also unusual, because usually a government listens to the advice of its attorney general

Alan Baker, a hawkish former legal adviser to the Foreign Ministry, agreed that it is irregular for an AG to refuse to represent the government in court, but added that in this particular case Mandelblit made the right call.

“It’s unusual, but usually the government doesn’t support legislation that is in violation of international law,” Baker said, arguing that the retroactive legalization of settlements built on private Palestinian land falls into that category.

“It’s also unusual, because usually a government listens to the advice of its attorney general,” Baker went on. “And if the attorney general says this or that act isn’t legal or doesn’t fit in with accepted international norms, normal governments go along with that and act accordingly.”

Abnormal relations

But relations between Mandelblit and the government that appointed him three years ago — and particularly the person at its helm — have long ceased to be normal. The prime minister and his political allies, who for a long time dismissed the corruption allegations against him by saying they amounted to “nothing,” have recently changed their tune and are now urging the AG to delay publicizing his decision on an indictment until after the election.

They complain about “thuggish pressure” the media and others have exerted on the AG to indict Netanyahu. But at the same time they posit that his reported intention to announce the indictment by February, pending a hearing, would interfere in the democratic process.

Likud MK Nava Boker (R) attends a protest in support of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu near the weekly demonstration by Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit’s home in Petah Tikva on August 5, 2017. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

Netanyahu was recently reported to have told associates that his election campaign would attack Mandelblit “without mercy” if the AG decided to open the hearing process before Election Day. The prime minister denies having said this.

In an extraordinary live TV broadcast to the nation earlier this month, however, Netanyahu asserted that the investigation against him had not been handled fairly, with key witnesses who could support his narrative not questioned, and his requests to confront his accusers face-to-face unreasonably denied — complaints that were rebuffed by sources in the Mandelblit’s state prosecution hierarchy.

Outwardly, Mandelblit has kept his cool, shrugging off any suggestion that he is under enormous pressure. In a letter sent to Netanyahu’s lawyer, who had asked that no decision be made before April 9, his office stated on Thursday that work on the case “continues and proceeds as planned.”

But relations between the AG and his former boss are not rosy, to say the least.

Also on Thursday, Hadashot news cited an anonymous source close to Mandelblit as saying the constant attacks against the AG’s office “come straight from the top.”

“The prime minister is dragging the entire country down. It’s sad and it hurts all of us,” the source said.

In his own comments to the same TV channel, Mandelblit insisted repeatedly — in his customary fast and firm tones, plainly ill at ease talking to the reporter at all, and refusing to answer her more provocative questions — that he will consider and be guided only by the evidence.

He would, he vowed, shut out all emotions — “because they must not have an impact, they do not have an impact” — as he moves inexorably toward the most difficult decision of his professional life, with immense ramifications for his country and the only leader it has had for a decade.

***

The possible charges

Netanyahu has been investigated in three cases, and police have recommended he be charged with bribery in all three. Police recommendations have no legal value, however, and the final decision rests with Mandelblit.

Netanyahu has said he would not resign during a hearing process, which Mandelblit has confirmed he has no legal obligation to do. Were he to seek to remain in office if indicted, he would likely face legal challenges; the law is not definitive, and some legal experts say a prime minister could stay in office through a trial, a conviction and until all appeals had been exhausted.

In Case 1000, Netanyahu is suspected of receiving benefits and gifts worth about NIS 1 million ($282,000) from billionaire benefactors, including Israeli Hollywood producer Arnon Milchan, in exchange for assistance on various issues. Some reports have suggested that Mandelblit is leaning toward a charge of breach of trust in this case.

Case 2000 involves a suspected illicit quid pro quo deal between Netanyahu and Yedioth Ahronoth publisher Arnon Mozes that would have seen the prime minister hobble rival daily Israel Hayom in return for more favorable coverage from Yedioth. Some reports have suggested that Mandelblit may close the case; Channel 10, by contrast, asserted recently that state prosecutors are leaning toward a bribery charge.

In Case 4000, reportedly the most serious of the three, Netanyahu is suspected of having advanced regulatory decisions as communications minister and prime minister from 2015 to 2017 that benefited Shaul Elovitch, the controlling shareholder in Bezeq, the country’s largest telecommunications firm, in exchange for positive coverage from Elovitch’s Walla news site.

Netanyahu denies any wrongdoing.

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