Netanyahu calls for probe after grave of attorney general’s father defaced

Vandalism reported as Avichai Mandeblit reviews corruption investigations into PM; opposition accuses PM of encouraging crime

Michael Bachner is a news editor at The Times of Israel

The vandalized grave of Attorney General Avichai Mandelblits father, Baruch, December 2018. (Screenshot: Hadashot TV)
The vandalized grave of Attorney General Avichai Mandelblits father, Baruch, December 2018. (Screenshot: Hadashot TV)

The grave of Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit’s father was vandalized earlier this month, television reports said Thursday, drawing condemnations of the “shocking” and “vile” crime from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, President Reuven Rivlin, senior ministers, and opposition leaders.

Mandelblit discovered the vandalism 10 days ago, when he visited his mother’s grave on the anniversary of her death, Hadashot and Channel 10 news reported.

Mandelblit immediately updated police that the tombstone of his father, Baruch, had been smashed with a heavy tool, likely a hammer, the reports said.

No other tombstones in the area were damaged, indicating the perpetrators had been targeting the grave, according to the reports.

The defacement was reported on the same day as the pro-Netanyahu Israel Hayom daily published a warning — in comments attributed to Netanyahu — against the attorney general, who is due to decide whether to indict the prime minister in three corruption cases. The prime minister has denied making the remarks.

On Thursday evening, Netanyahu immediately condemned the vandalism as “a shocking act that should be unequivocally condemned.”

The prime minister said he has asked Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan to swiftly investigate who damaged the grave.

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

Erdan also responded to the reports, saying he has ordered police to “do everything to reach and prosecute the lowlife criminals who committed this vile and shocking act.”

“I expect political leaders to unite in condemning this act, which crosses a red line, and not use it for political gain,” he added.

Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked branded the incident “a sickening act that contradicts basic moral values. I am saddened that there are people who don’t hesitate to take such abominable measures.”

“This has definitely crossed a red line and I expect police to prosecute those responsible as soon as possible,” she said.

Rivlin also denounced the vandalism.

“The desecration of the attorney general’s father’s grave is a foolish and disgusting act,” said the president.

From the opposition, politicians accused Netanyahu of fostering a climate of hatred against the attorney general and law enforcement.

“When you encourage violence against the left and thuggishly threaten the attorney general, it’s no wonder that people take the law into their own hands,” Zionist Union chairman Avi Gabbay tweeted.

“We saw where that led in 1995,” Gabbay wrote, referring to the assassination of prime minister Yitzhak Rabin by a Jewish extremist, which some have blamed on incitement by Netanyahu. “The man is the same man, and the insinuations are the same insinuations.”

Zionist Union head Avi Gabbay and MK Tzipi Livni at a Knesset faction meeting on November 6, 2017. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Opposition chief Tzipi Livni also condemned the vandalism, calling it “shocking,” and adding that “we need a leadership that unconditionally defends law enforcement officials and rekindles public support in them.”

Earlier on Thursday, a report attributed to Netanyahu comments warning of a “merciless” attack on the attorney general if he announces an indictment against the premier in the corruption cases before the April 9 elections.

The threat came in a report in the pro-Netanyahu daily Israel Hayom. According to the report, a senior Likud source warned earlier this week that if a decision to indict Netanyahu is made before the elections, Mandelblit “will become the target of a merciless attack” by party officials.

Some versions of the same story published by Israel Hayom attributed the comments not to a senior Likud source but to Netanyahu himself.

“There will be no holds barred and no effort to safeguard his honor. The entire Likud campaign will be directed against him,” the paper quoted the Likud source as warning Mandelblit.

The Likud party responded to the report on Thursday by denying Netanyahu had made the statements, saying, “Prime Minister Netanyahu has not spoken to anyone about this.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (L) and then-cabinet secretary Avichai Mandelblit at the weekly cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem on July 5, 2015. (Emil Salman/Pool/Flash90)

“No one in Likud is threatening the attorney general,” the statement declared, charging instead that “threats and pressures to indict Netanyahu at any cost and by any means come daily from the left and the media.”

Netanyahu’s lawyer later sent a letter to Mandelblit, calling the Israel Hayom report “unfounded” and maintaining that the prime minister never made such remarks, Hadashot reported.

On Thursday evening, law enforcement officials speaking anonymously to the Hebrew-language press called on Netanyahu to publicly renounce the statements and declare that such sentiments are unacceptable in political discourse.

According to Israel Hayom, the comments came during a conversation between the prime minister and his inner circle in the run-up to Wednesday’s Knesset vote to dissolve the parliament and go to elections. In that conversation, Netanyahu reportedly also said he believed Mandelblit “won’t dare” to announce charges against him before the national ballot.

He also said he does not intend to resign from office if indicted — whether before or after the upcoming election — not even if his case goes to a criminal trial.

Police investigators arrive at the entrance to the Prime Minister Residence in Jerusalem on August 17, 2018. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

A prime minister is only required to resign after being convicted of a crime that carries moral turpitude, after exhausting all available appeals.

This week’s announcement that elections will be held in April — seven months earlier than originally scheduled — came as Mandelblit began reviewing the criminal cases against Netanyahu. Reports before the announcement of early elections suggested he intended to make a decision on whether to indict the prime minister by mid-April.

Some analysts argue Netanyahu’s timing for calling elections is linked to his graft investigations. The prime minister, they argue, is gunning to secure reelection before an indictment is handed down, under the assumption that the attorney general would shy away from pressing charges against Israel’s longtime leader in the throes of an election campaign.

Initial reports after Monday’s announcement that elections would be held in April, citing shadowy unnamed legal officials, said Mandelblit would likely delay any announcement to avoid the suggestion he was intervening in Israel’s political process. Later reports, however, also quoting anonymous officials, said he could make a decision by February.

Likud sources also told Israel Hayom that Netanyahu planned to condition entry into his coalition after the election — assuming he wins on April 9 — on parties promising to remain in the government even if he is indicted at a later date.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu arrives in the Knesset plenum for a vote on a bill to dissolve parliament, in Jerusalem on December 26, 2018. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Police have recommended Netanyahu be indicted in each of the three probes against him. Of the cases, the one known as Case 4000 is considered by the State Prosecutor’s Office to be the most serious, according to television reports.

In that case, 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.

The prosecutor’s office last week told Mandelblit the allegations constituted “a clear case of bribery,” according to Hadashot TV news. Recommendations for bribery charges were also made in the cases known as 1000 and 2000, though those were seen as less clear-cut, according to the report.

In Case 1000, Netanyahu is suspected of receiving benefits worth about NIS 1 million ($282,000) from billionaire benefactors, including Israeli Hollywood producer Arnon Milchan, in exchange for assistance on various issues.

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 a rival daily newspaper, Israel Hayom, in return for more favorable coverage from Yedioth.

Netanyahu, who has been in office since 2009, has denied wrongdoing and portrays the cases as part of a conspiracy against him encompassing the left, the media, and law enforcement officials.

Raoul Wootliff and Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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