Netanyahu accuses attorney general of ‘setup’ after TV news profile

Netanyahu accuses attorney general of ‘setup’ after TV news profile

Prime minister, under investigation for corruption, calls Avichai Mandelblit’s decision to speak to Hadashot news ‘unprecedented in the annals of the Israeli judiciary’

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, and then-cabinet secretary Avichai Mandelblit, at a cabinet meeting on January 4, 2015. (Marc Israel Sellem/Pool/Flash90/File)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, and then-cabinet secretary Avichai Mandelblit, at a cabinet meeting on January 4, 2015. (Marc Israel Sellem/Pool/Flash90/File)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attacked Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit for what he called a “setup” and blasted him for his decision to grant an interview to a television program, calling it “unprecedented.”

Netanyahu’s comments Saturday night came shortly after the broadcast of a profile on Hadashot TV news of Mandelblit, who is expected to announce whether he intends to indict Netanyahu on corruption charges in coming weeks or months.

Netanyahu and allies in the Likud Party have dismissed allegations against him as a “witch hunt,” and have accused the left, the media and the police of pressuring Mandelblit into charging Netanyahu, but have mostly refrained from attacking the attorney general directly.

In a Facebook post Saturday night, though, Netanyahu accused Mandelblit of launching probes without hard evidence against him. The Hadashot news report had alleged that law enforcement authorities initially only worked off rumors regarding gifts received by the prime minister.

“That’s what’s called a ‘set-up,”‘ Netanyahu wrote.

Netanyahu said Mandeblit’s decision to speak to the channel “is unprecedented in the annals of the Israeli judiciary, and raises serious questions.” He went on to call it “disturbing.”

Netanyahu, who was slated to leave for Chad for a one-day trip early Sunday, said he would respond with “severe words” upon his return.

The profile piece on the attorney general’s involvement with the various investigations featured extensive quotes attributed to “associates” of Mandelblit.

It also featured a short interview with Mandelblit himself, but Netanyahu’s concern appeared to be directed at what the associates had said of the probes, and he seemed to imply that Mandelblit’s involvement went beyond the on-record segments of the TV story.

Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit attends a Knesset State Control Committee meeting on December 3, 2018. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

According to the Hadashot piece, Mandelblit, whose upcoming decision on whether to indict Netanyahu in three corruption cases could have monumental consequences for the country, has told associates he understands the weight of responsibility placed on him, but that he is committed only to “the truth.”

“I understand the meaning of indicting a prime minister,” Mandelblit was quoted as saying. “It’s come during my watch, and I will make the appropriate decision only according to the truth.”

On another occasion the attorney general was said to tell associates: “My entire professional life has led me to this moment, and my entire professional career will be measured by this decision.”

Police have recommended that Netanyahu be charged with bribery in three separate cases, dubbed by the media 1000, 2000 and 4000. According to legal sources quoted by Hadashot, Mandelblit has already decided to indict Netanyahu in case 4000, which involved suspicions he traded regulatory favors for positive media coverage.

While Mandelblit is reportedly set to announce whether he intends to indict before April 9 elections, actual charges cannot be filed until after Netanyahu is granted a hearing, which would likely take place after elections. Netanyahu has pushed for Mandelblit to hold off on announcing anything before elections for fear it will sway the vote.

Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit, left, and State Prosecutor Shai Nitzan at a conference of the Justice Ministry in Tel Aviv, December 21, 2016. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

Hadashot reported Friday that an initial meeting on the prime minister’s affairs was held only two months after Mandelblit entered office, in April 2016, when over 30 top officials from the police and the state prosecution met at his office with various files and complaints relating to the prime minister, including his penchant for receiving expensive gifts from wealthy individuals.

At the meeting, later dubbed by prosecution officials the “Tip of the Iceberg” meeting, Mandelblit reportedly told those gathered: “There are more layers here than meets the eye. We see lots of dots but there is no big picture yet. Don’t deal with trifles. Identify the key people to reach beyond the tip of the iceberg. This is the guiding principle: We are only looking for what meets the standard of reasonable suspicion for an offense.”

By November of that year, as police gathered evidence that Netanyahu had received numerous expensive gifts from Israeli Hollywood producer Arnon Milchan and Australian billionaire James Packer, Mandelblit was handed a document with a bottom line stating the sum total of those gifts was NIS 700,000.

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

According to people in the room, he immediately picked up the phone and rang State Prosecutor Shai Nitzan. “Shai, have you seen the document that’s come from police?” he said. “There’s no choice but to investigate.”

He then reportedly told those in attendance: “He isn’t careful. A prime minister should be more careful. It’s a shame.”

This led to Mandelblit officially authorizing police to open the first criminal probe against Netanyahu, known as Case 1000.

Hadashot revealed a previously unpublicized allegation against Netanyahu as part of that case: that as part of his relationship with Milchan, he helped Michlan advance a proposed project with Indian businessman Ratan Tata in the Dead Sea area.

During his questioning, Milchan told investigators he and Tata had taken a chopper ride to the Dead Sea, and that it had been a military helicopter. Asked by investigators how this could be, Milchan replied: “Bibi arranged it for me.”

When investigators later came to possess a recording of Netanyahu allegedly offering Yedioth Ahronoth publisher Arnon Mozes an illicit quid pro quo deal, officials launched a new case, dubbed 2000. And Mandelblit reportedly took pains to hide the existence of Case 2000 from Netanyahu before he was first questioned about it.

Publisher and owner of the Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper Arnon ‘Noni’ Mozes arrives for questioning at the Lahav 433 investigation unit in Lod, January 15, 2017. (Koko/Flash90)

When Mozes was brought in for questioning in the probe, Mandelblit weighed whether to arrest him — which would likely alert Netanyahu to the investigation, or let him go home quietly, where he could potentially inform the premier of his questioning.

“If I had wanted to signal to Netanyahu that there was another investigation, all I had to do was arrest [Mozes] and the media would have grown wise to it,” Mandelblit reportedly told associates. “I took a chance and we managed to surprise Netanyahu.

“He thought he was coming in to be questioned on Case 1000 and suddenly he realized we had the tape. He was shocked when he heard it, and the testimony he gave [in response] made things harder for him.”

Case 4000 later joined the other two, and involves another alleged trade-off with media of positive coverage in exchange for benefits.

As the probes came to a head, sources in Mandelblit’s inner circle reportedly said: “The talking points against the attorney general are coming straight from the top. The prime minister is dragging the entire country down. It’s sad and it’s going to hurt us all.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during a handover ceremony for the new IDF chief of staff on January 15, 2019, at the Defense Ministry headquarters in Tel Aviv. (Jack Guez/AFP)

Though the Hadashot report was chiefly based on unsourced quotations, it did include a short interview with Mandelblit himself. In it, he said he was not surprised by attacks against him from the right and from the left throughout the different stages of the investigations. “From this side or that side, what does it matter? I’m a professional. I operate according to evidence and that’s all,” he said.

“I can’t let it affect me and it won’t.”

He criticized any and all attacks. “They need to let the professional system do its work. The attorney general’s office is an institution, I didn’t invent it. It’s been here for 70 years and will be here for decades more. It’s now our watch and we need to protect this institution. That’s more important than anything else.”

Asked about Netanyahu’s refusal to resign if informed of an impending indictment, Mandelblit shrugged. “He has the presumption of innocence. If there’s a hearing — I’m not saying there’ll be one but if there is — we will of course need to listen with open hearts and minds.”

Asked if he should be envied for his position, he gave a short laugh. “No. But it doesn’t matter. It’s my responsibility, and I know how to carry responsibility.”

Mandelblit indicated Thursday that he will turn down Netanyahu’s request that he delay, until after the elections on April 9, his announcement on whether he will indict the prime minister.

In other comments frrom his interview that were first broadcast on Thursday, Mandelblit said that the fact that Israel is holding early elections “is none of my business… It’s not something that affects me… I need to do my work as quickly as possible, although of course without compromising thoroughness and professionalism.”

Asked whether he intended to publish his conclusions before the elections, and whether it was important to do so, he said: “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.”

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