Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Justice Minister Amir Ohana on Tuesday demanded the publication of decade-old transcripts of phone calls between Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit and Blue and White lawmaker Gabi Ashkenazi amid claims by some right-wing pundits that the corruption indictments against the prime minister are part of an anti-Netanyahu conspiracy between the two men.
The calls in question took place in August 2010, when Ashkenazi was chief of staff of the Israel Defense Forces and Mandelblit 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.
The Harpaz affair began in April 2010 when a shadowy former IDF intelligence officer named Boaz Harpaz, then serving as a private-sector defense adviser 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 document recommended a smear campaign against Gallant’s rivals, including then-deputy chief of staff Benny 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 fake 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 community service hours.
While the story is not new, Channel 13 published purportedly “new” transcripts of those calls on Sunday that were already published by Israeli media in 2014.
Channel 13’s timing — just two weeks before 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.
On Monday, the pro-Netanyahu daily Israel Hayom prominently featured an opinion column alleging that Netanyahu’s corruption troubles were the result of an alleged “conspiracy” between Mandelblit and Ashkenazi, who have allegedly been secretly allied since the Harpaz affair in 2010.
Writing in the paper on Monday, columnist Amnon Lord called the 2010 case “the start of the road for Ashkenazi, Gantz and Mandelblit — to take out not only Gallant, but also Netanyahu.” He suggested the alleged alliance amounted to a soft military coup, echoing Netanyahu’s claims that the investigations into his affairs were an “attempted coup” by police and prosecutors.
“That is, since 2010 we have a defense elite that doesn’t accept the rule of the political echelon,” claimed Lord.
Before Netanyahu’s corruption cases were launched, Mandelblit was considered a close confidant of the prime minister, who appointed him cabinet secretary in 2013 and attorney general in 2016.
In an interview Tuesday with Channel 13, Netanyahu demanded that all remaining unpublished transcripts, placed under gag order at the time, be released.
“Ashkenazi needs to explain to the public what he did. What do they have to hide?” Netanyahu demanded.
“If they have nothing [to hide], it would help if they agreed to release the materials before the elections. [Ashkenazi] wants to lead the country!”
Justice Minister Amir Ohana, a Netanyahu ally, also called for their release, saying in a statement Tuesday that all recordings from the “Ashkenazi-Mandelblit investigations” must be made public.
“The public must know before the election, in order to allow for a transparent and open public debate, all the facts about the nature of the connection between Ashkenazi and Mandelblit, and whether it affected their decisions,” he said, in an apparent reference to Mandelblit’s decision to indict Netanyahu for corruption.
Ohana insisted the still-sealed portions of the 2010 conversations between the IDF chief of staff and the army’s top legal official “do not contain military secrets or anything related to national security, which [in any case] can be easily censored, and are not about personal family affairs that the public doesn’t need to know about…. They’re recordings carried out in a public office, not at anyone’s private home.”
The Harpaz affair brought to light the intense antipathy for one another felt by the country’s two top defense officials at the time — chief of staff Ashkenazi and defense minister Ehud Barak. Ashkenazi was openly bitter at Barak’s decision in April 2010 not to extend his term as army chief by a year, a fact that may have contributed, with or without Ashkenazi’s knowledge or agreement, to Harpaz producing the fake document in an attempt to disrupt the selection process for Ashkenazi’s successor.
Ashkenazi has claimed he, too, was duped by Harpaz, believed the document was authentic at the time, and that it showed Barak and Gallant were conspiring to humiliate him with a public smear campaign and appoint Gallant army chief in his stead.
Suspicion fell, too, on the then-military advocate general, Maj. Gen. Mandelblit, who was questioned under caution in June 2014, when he was already out of uniform and serving as Netanyahu’s cabinet secretary. Investigators suspected at the time that Mandelblit may have helped Ashkenazi and his aides to hinder the investigation by failing to tell them that Ashkenazi possessed the document — or indeed, that Ashkenazi was spreading it within the army and working to have it leaked to the press.
In September 2014, police recommended charging Mandelblit, along with Harpaz, former IDF spokesman Avi Benayahu and former Ashkenazi aide Erez Viner, with obstruction and breach of trust for allegedly failing to report everything they knew in a timely fashion. But in May 2015, then-attorney general Yehudah Weinstein decided to close the case against Mandelblit. A later ruling by the High Court of Justice concluded Mandelblit had “done no wrong.”
The specific concern related to Mandelblit’s actions are over the five days that passed in August 2010 between the first media revelation of the document’s existence, by Channel 2 news in its August 5 broadcast, and Ashkenazi’s public admission he had a copy of the document in his possession on August 10 — and, police investigators said, had been sharing it with other IDF major generals and helped leak it to the press to smear Gallant.
The transcripts published by Channel 13 on Sunday of phone calls between Mandelblit, Ashkenazi and Ashkenazi’s top aide, bureau chief Viner, during those five days reveal that Mandelblit tried to steer clear of the ruckus, and that this desire may have inadvertently helped Ashkenazi in his attempt to pretend he had no knowledge of or connection to the document as its existence was becoming publicly known.
One of the problems faced by investigators in those first days of the investigation was obtaining a copy of the Harpaz document itself. No one in the army — Ashkenazi included — seemed willing to come forward and admit they had it in their possession.
In the early afternoon of August 9, 2010, Mandelblit and Ashkenazi met at Ashkenazi’s office at IDF Headquarters. Police investigators later claimed Ashkenazi told Mandelblit at that meeting that he had the document in his possession.
Mandelblit walked out of that meeting and immediately called Deputy Attorney General Raz Nizri to discuss the case, but did not mention that Ashkenazi possessed a copy of the document.
In his 2014 questioning, Mandelblit denied knowing that fact at the time, saying he only discovered that the document was sitting in Ashkenazi’s office several hours after the phone call with Nizri.
After speaking to Nizri, Mandelblit then called Viner. The call was recorded on a special device installed in the IDF chief of staff’s office.
“I spoke with Raz,” he is heard saying. “I told him that I…still haven’t examined the case in any depth, but that I think the best thing is that they do this up front, take the easy route. Go to the reporter [Channel 2’s Amnon Abramovich, who broke the story]. I’d rather not start digging and looking [for the Harpaz document within the army]. In the end I’m going to be a witness in this case. I told him [Nizri], ‘Drop it, I just don’t want to, take the easy path, go to the reporter and get the document from him, he has no journalistic privilege over the document itself, only over his sources.’”
If Mandelblit already knew the document’s whereabouts, investigators would later argue, that conversation amounted to obstruction of justice.
Part of the disagreement over what Mandelblit knew concerns a hard-to-discern passage in the recordings.
According to police investigators in 2014, Mandelblit is heard telling Viner in that call, “I didn’t tell him [Nizri] anything that’s in the office there…so he dropped it. He [Nizri] will tell them [police investigators], ‘Go get it yourselves, and wherever it takes you, it takes you.’”
But Mandelblit insisted he didn’t say “anything that’s in the office there,” a seemingly damning admission that he knew where the document could be found.
In a transcription of the recording Mandelblit commissioned himself from a professional transcription company, and which later legal inquiries found accurate, the text reads, “I didn’t tell [Nizri] I’d do anything with that difficult man…so he dropped it. He will tell them, ‘Go get it yourselves, and wherever it takes you, it takes you.’”
The “difficult man,” Mandelblit explained to police in 2014, was a reference to Gallant. He informed Nizri he’d preferred not to ask Southern Command chief Gallant for the document — at a time when investigators still believed Gallant may have been its source.
Late that night, Ashkenazi phoned Mandelblit to admit he possessed the document, but had hoped police would find a way to obtain it from other sources. The following morning, on August 10, Mandelblit instructed Ashkenazi to inform attorney general Weinstein he had the document in his possession, and had had it for several months. Ashkenazi called Weinstein and came clean.
Nearly all the recordings publicized by Channel 13 on Sunday were first revealed in 2014 by other media outlets, including the Haaretz daily, in the months when Weinstein was considering indicting the figures close to Ashkenazi over the affair.
Ashkenazi’s office noted in its response to the Channel 13 report on Sunday that the recordings were “from almost a decade ago” and “have been reported on several times in the past. Hundreds of thousands of Ashkenazi’s conversations have been examined and searched by police, the state comptroller and the attorney general, who in the end decided to close the case. All the suspicions have been discredited and disproven. We wish for all public servants that such massive surveillance of all their conversations ends in the same way.”
Mandelblit responded that Weinstein’s suspicions that he helped Ashkenazi avoid handing over the document were examined by the search committee that vetted his appointment as attorney general in 2014, and by the High Court of Justice that looked into a petition against the appointment. Both concluded he had done nothing wrong.