Netanyahu laughs off AG’s ‘amusing’ ban on campaign photos with soldiers

PM takes aim at Mandelblit, who is expected to announce graft charges against him soon, saying he’ll take photos with Navy troops and post them after election

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during a visit to a base in Haifa, on February 12, 2019. (JACK GUEZ / POOL / AFP)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during a visit to a base in Haifa, on February 12, 2019. (JACK GUEZ / POOL / AFP)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Tuesday continued his offensive against Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit — who is expected in the coming weeks to announce an indictment against Netanyahu pending a hearing — this time taking aim at a recent ban on election campaign photos with IDF soldiers.

Last Thursday, Mandelblit issued a legal opinion that Netanyahu, who also serves as defense minister, cannot release photographs of himself meeting IDF soldiers for campaign purposes until Israelis head to the polls on April 9.

Campaign advertising rules forbid using uniformed soldiers in campaign materials and it is illegal to campaign on IDF bases.

On Tuesday, Netanyahu mocked Mandelblit decision as “amusing” in a video to his social media followers ahead of his visit to a Navy base in Haifa.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in a video to his social media followers, February 11, 2019. (Screenshot: Twitter)

“I would’ve really liked to take you inside, but they have some weird instruction — no taking photos with soldiers,” he said. “I was also a soldier, so can I not be photographed as well?”

Mandelblit’s decision only refers to soldiers currently on duty, since only they are banned from engaging in public political activity.

Addressing the soldiers, Netanyahu added: “When I meet you I do intend to take photos with you and I will want to publish them after the elections — because I have more than two million followers worldwide and I want you to be seen because you beautifully represent the IDF and the State of Israel.”

While the Prime Minister’s Office published photos of Netanyahu touring the base with uniformed officers, his Facebook page did not share the pictures.

The attorney general had issued the ruling in response to a Labor Party petition filed against Netanyahu.

The attorney general’s opinion applies to all candidates, but affects Netanyahu’s campaign materials most significantly. Netanyahu’s office had been releasing photographs of him visiting IDF units several times a week since the Knesset voted to head to elections in December. The attorney general specified that the decision also applied to social media posts.

Mandelblit’s opinion also said Netanyahu cannot deliver political speeches during IDF base visits.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks with soldiers during a visit to the Northern Command base in Safed, December 11, 2018 (Basel Awidat/Flash90)

Mandelblit clarified the restrictions only apply to publicizing the photos. There is no limit on the defense minister conducting base visits, nor do the rules apply in cases of operational need, such as a public announcement in a national-security emergency.

Following the announcement, Netanyahu this week canceled two scheduled visits to army bases. One of them on Monday was also supposed to be to a Navy base in Haifa, and the other was scheduled for Tuesday at a Givati Brigade drill in the Jordan Valley.

Police have recommended Netanyahu stand trial for bribery in three separate corruption cases. Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit is currently reviewing the material and is reportedly set to announce a decision this month or next month, but final charges would only be filed after a hearing procedure, which could take up to a year.

In the so-called Case 1000, Netanyahu is suspected of receiving benefits worth about NIS 1 million ($282,000) from billionaire benefactors in exchange for favors.

Case 2000 involves a suspected illicit quid pro quo deal between Netanyahu and Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper publisher Arnon Mozes that would have seen the prime minister weaken a rival daily, the Sheldon Adelson-backed Israel Hayom, in return for more favorable coverage from Yedioth.

In Case 4000, 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, and has claimed the investigations are part of a political vendetta and witch hunt aimed at ousting him, involving the political left, the media and the police. He has criticized Mandelblit for “giving in to pressure from the left.”

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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