Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sparred Tuesday with the rival Blue and White party’s MK Gabi Ashkenazi, as attention increasingly focused on the former army general, who is being touted as a defense minister in a potential future government headed by Benny Gantz.
After Gantz on Monday repeated his pledge to make Ashkenazi defense chief if Blue and White wins next week’s Knesset elections, Netanyahu attacked Ashkenazi over transcripts — currently barred from publication by a court gag order — of the latter’s phone calls with Avichai Mandelblit, now the attorney general, related to the decade-old “Harpaz affair.”
Netanyahu’s Likud party has launched a large-scale campaign for the transcripts to be cleared for publication, and a right-wing pundit last week even read out parts of the gagged conversations during a Likud-organized conference in Eilat.
During a Tuesday campaign rally in Migdal Haemek, Netanyahu called the pledge to make Ashkenazi defense minister “an empty promise, because when the recordings are published Ashkenazi won’t be able to be defense minister and in my opinion will quit politics. Ashkenazi made shocking remarks about the Druze, our brothers who have tied their fate with ours.”
In response, Ashkenazi took to Twitter to claim Netanyahu offered him the defense minister position during coalition negotiations following the September elections.
“I heard Netanyahu’s lies this evening,” he said. “I won’t stoop to his level. If he isn’t embarrassed for telling lies, I am embarrassed for him. If he thinks I can’t remain in politics, why did Netanyahu recently offer me to be Israel’s defense minister? You can choose which Netanyahu to believe.”
Likud responded to the tweet with a threat.
“If you continue lying we will be forced to publicize your attempts to join Likud and the refusals you got because of the awful things you said in your recordings,” the party said. “Regardless of politics, first apologize to our beloved Druze brothers. This is your last warning.”
Despite Likud accusing Ashkenazi of lying, Interior Minister Aryeh Deri confirmed Tuesday in an interview with the Walla news site that he had indeed offered Ashkenazi the defense portfolio during the negotiations — on behalf of Netanyahu.
The recordings of Ashkenazi were made in August 2010, when he was chief of staff of the Israel Defense Forces and Mandelblit was the army’s top legal officer. They were investigated by police as part of the “Harpaz affair” that roiled the army’s top echelons that year. Some right-wing pundits have alleged, without providing evidence, that the corruption indictment against the prime minister is part of an anti-Netanyahu conspiracy involving the two men.
Though the transcripts of their calls have been barred from publication by a court order, they were openly read out to participants at Thursday’s Likud-organized “Leumiada” gathering in Eilat by Boaz Golan, a staunchly pro-Netanyahu pundit who founded the fringe news site 0404.
An unnamed law enforcement official told Channel 13 that Golan will probably face criminal action for knowingly breaching a gag order and would likely be summoned for questioning under caution. After coming under criticism, Golan contended that he had not breached the gag order and had consulted a lawyer before taking the stage.
The Harpaz affair began in April 2010 when a former IDF intelligence officer named Boaz Harpaz, then serving as a private-sector defense adviser and known to be close to then-IDF chief Ashkenazi, produced a fake document purporting to be a public relations strategy for then-Southern Command chief Yoav Gallant’s campaign to become the next chief of staff. Gallant is today a prominent lawmaker for Likud.
The fake document recommended a smear campaign against Gallant’s rivals, including then-deputy chief of staff Gantz, who would go on to be appointed Israel’s 20th chief of staff in 2011 and is today Netanyahu’s chief rival for the premiership in the upcoming general election on March 2.
The document was soon revealed as a forgery intended to smear Gallant himself, and suspicion fell on Ashkenazi. A criminal investigation was launched into Harpaz’s actions in 2011. He was arrested in March 2014 and, after a complex investigation and trial that ended in a November 2018 plea deal, was sentenced in May 2019 to 220 hours of community service. Ashkenazi himself was cleared.
Channel 13 published purportedly new transcripts of calls between Mandelblit and Ashkenazi on Sunday (airing only segments that are not under gag order) that were previously published by Israeli media in 2014.
Channel 13’s timing — just two weeks before the March 2 election day, and as Netanyahu faces a corruption trial on charges brought by Mandelblit — raised concerns the issue has been revived for the benefit of the Likud campaign, in a bid to cast doubt on the attorney general’s integrity and dampen the political fallout from Netanyahu’s looming corruption trial, which is set to begin on March 17.