Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu may seek to dismiss Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit or to seriously discredit him after next week’s election, according to several media reports Friday.
Haaretz reported Friday morning that emissaries for Netanyahu have in recent months been working to dig up dirt on Mandelblit — particularly his involvement in the so-called “Harpaz affair” from 2010. Mandelblit was a suspect in the case but eventually was cleared of all wrongdoing by the High Court of Justice.
Kan TV news on Friday evening gave credence to the story, reporting that Netanyahu was concerned about Mandelblit’s coming decisions on two critical issues: his eligibility to be tasked with forming a government after the election despite his upcoming trial; and whether to open a new investigation into Netanyahu over his alleged failure to disclose his stock holdings in his cousin’s company.
Kan said Mandelblit was currently leaning towards launching an investigation.
Law enforcement officials told Kan that Israel’s leadership was conducting itself “like members of the underworld” in trying to discredit Mandelblit.
And on Channel 12, veteran journalist Ilana Dayan said Mandelblit was preparing for the possibility that Netanyahu would attempt to oust him from his post if he wins a Knesset majority in the March 2 election, to be replaced by the acting State Attorney Dan Eldad.
Dayan did not cite sources for her report.
Any attempt by the prime minister to dismiss the attorney general who put him on trial would undoubtedly be brought before the High Court.
Netanyahu has been charged with fraud and breach of trust in three criminal cases — as well as bribery in one of them — that center on accusations he received illegal gifts and traded political favors for positive news coverage.
He denies wrongdoing and has dismissed the charges against him as a witch hunt by law enforcement, the media and political rivals to force him from office.
His trial is set to open on March 17.
Asked Friday by the Ynet news site if he or his associates had gathered information about Mandelblit, Netanyahu responded: “I didn’t operate private investigators. If I had operated private investigators we already would’ve received the recordings of Mandelblit, all the material about the corruption cases.”
He was apparently referring to the Harpaz affair. In the case, a former IDF intelligence officer named Boaz Harpaz close to then-IDF chief Gabi 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 fake 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.
Mandelblit, who was the top military prosecutor at the time, 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. He was eventually cleared.
Netanyahu went on to nominate Mandelblit as attorney general, with his appointment approved in January 2016.
In a pair of interviews Friday Netanyahu also denied he would seek a plea deal after the upcoming elections in the series of graft cases in which he faces trial.
Speaking with the Walla news site, Netanyahu was asked about Yisrael Beytenu party leader Avigdor Liberman’s recent claim that the premier was only looking to do well in the elections to gain leverage toward a plea bargain.
“Definitely not. The only deal I want to reach is the ‘Deal of the Century,'” Netanyahu said, referring to US President Donald Trump’s proposal for Israel-Palestinian peace.
He denied ever discussing the matter with his lawyers and said he had rejected entreaties from unspecified “journalists and others” to seek a plea bargain.
“I’m going to shatter all the delusional claims and the fruitless cases they manufactured for me. I demand full transparency,” the prime minister said.
Netanyahu was also asked by Walla about the High Court of Justice potentially ruling after the elections that a Knesset member under indictment cannot be tasked with forming a government. The court in January dismissed a petition to bar Netanyahu from assembling a government, saying it was “premature” to weigh the matter as it was theoretical at the time.
“This would be scandalous,” he said. “In a democracy it is the people who determines who will lead the people.”
The premier also did not rule out advancing a so-called override bill in such a scenario, legislation proposed by some of his allies that would allow the Knesset to overrule Supreme Court rulings.
“I don’t believe the court will make such a decision. It’s hard for me to believe. It will mortally wound democracy,” he said.
In his interview with Ynet, Netanyahu denied his Likud party was behind a recording of Gantz’s adviser Israel Bachar which was aired Thursday by Channel 12.
“No way. This is nonsense. No one put a pistol to Israel Bachar’s temple. Israel Bachar is saying something shocking: ‘The person that I’m trying to sell to you as the prime minister of Israel is a danger to the Israeli people,'” the premier said.
Gantz fired Bachar, a former adviser to Netanyahu, following the publication of the recording, while claiming he was “caught in a planned ambush.”
Bachar was heard saying he believed Gantz would shy away from attacking Iran if it became necessary, and that this was “a danger to the people of Israel.”
According to Hebrew media reports, Rabbi Guy Havura recorded Bachar making the comments about Gantz during a private consultation about his personal life.
Netanyahu met Havura a day before the recording was aired, during which the rabbi led attendants at a synagogue in a prayer for the prime minister to clinch 61 Knesset seats in next week’s election.
The interviews came just days before Israeli will go to the polls for the third time in less than a year, after the first two elections failed to produce a government, a first in the country’s history.
Opinion polls have shown Likud with a slight edge over Blue and White, though neither party was predicted to secure a majority with their respective allies, potentially setting up further political gridlock.