Recordings of phone calls from a decade ago released by Channel 13 news on Sunday night shed new light on Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit’s uncomfortable position in the so-called “Harpaz affair.”
The scandal broke in the press in August 2010 amid the bitter race to succeed outgoing IDF chief of staff Gabi Ashkenazi as army head.
The publication of the recordings comes just 14 days to the March 2 elections, in which Mandelblit’s decision to indict Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in three corruption cases will play a key role. The report was immediately seized upon by pro-Netanyahu media outlets to argue that the indictment was part of a “conspiracy” to oust the premier in favor of Blue and White chief Benny Gantz.
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. The 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 February 2011.
The document was soon revealed as a fake intended to smear Gallant himself, and suspicion fell on Ashkenazi (today a senior Knesset member for Blue and White). 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.
The 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’s actions in attempting to disrupt the selection process for his successor. Ashkenazi has claimed he too was duped by the document, and believed it proved Barak and Gallant were conspiring to humiliate him with a public smear campaign and appoint Gallant in his stead.
Suspicion fell, too, on the then-military advocate general, Maj. Gen. Mandelblit, the army’s top legal officer, who was questioned under caution in June 2014, when he was already out of uniform and serving as Netanyahu’s cabinet secretary. Investigators suspected that Mandelblit helped Ashkenazi and his aides to hinder the investigation by failing to tell investigators that Ashkenazi possessed the document — and indeed, was spreading it within the army and 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” in his handling of the case.
The question concerns 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 new recordings of phone calls from 2010 reveal that Mandelblit sought to steer clear of the case, 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.
What did Mandelblit know during those five days? And did he help Ashkenazi and his staff avoid investigators?
The recordings, obtained by police from a special device installed in the chief of staff’s office, show Ashkenazi’s top aide, bureau chief Viner, revealing that Mandelblit was updating them on the discussions in the attorney general’s office over whether to launch a criminal probe against the chief of staff.
“[Attorney General] Weinstein spoke with the MAG [Mandelblit], and he’s doing a consultation of his own,” Viner told his boss on August 8, three days after the document became public. “He [Weinstein] is leaning toward a police investigation and he wants it short and to the point…. The MAG told him we would cooperate in any way that’s needed. So there will be a police investigation.”
Ashkenazi replied: “Okay, we’ll tell the truth, that’s fine. We’ll tell the truth and that’s it… There will be an investigation, and we’ll say what we have to say.”
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.
On August 9, Mandelblit and Ashkenazi met at Ashkenazi’s office. Police investigators later claimed Ashkenazi told Mandelblit at that meeting that he had the document in his possession.
Mandelblit walked out of that afternoon meeting and called Deputy Attorney General Raz Nizri to discuss the case, but did not mention that Ashkenazi had the document.
Mandelblit has denied knowing it at the time, saying he only discovered that the document was sitting in Ashkenazi’s office several hours after the phone call.
After speaking to Nizri, Mandelblit called Viner.
“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 it. 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 his sources.'”
If Mandelblit 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 the police, Mandelblit is heard telling Viner, “I didn’t tell him [Nizri] anything that’s in the office there…so he dropped it. He’ll tell them [police investigators], ‘Go get it yourselves, and wherever it takes you, it takes you.'”
But Mandelblit insisted he didn’t say he had thrown Nizri off the scent over a document “in the office there.” In a transcription of the recording Mandelblit commissioned from a professional transcription company, the text reads, “I didn’t tell him [Nizri] anything with that difficult man…so he dropped it. He’ll 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 Gallant himself for the document — at a time when investigators still believed Gallant may have been its source.
The following morning, on August 10, Mandelblit instructed Ashkenazi to inform 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 several figures close to Ashkenazi over the affair.
Ashkenazi’s office noted in its response on Sunday that the Channel 13 report was made up of “old recordings from almost a decade ago that 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 examined 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.
While the story was not new, the political timing sparked allegations in the pro-Netanyahu daily Israel Hayom that Mandelblit’s corruption indictment against Netanyahu was part of the same alleged “conspiracy” between Mandelblit and Ashkenazi first purportedly witnessed in 2010.
Writing in the paper on Monday, prominent 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 purported 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.