A right-wing pundit on Thursday appeared to breach a gag order at a conference organized by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party, reading out transcripts related to the decade-old “Harpaz affair.”
The 10-year-old transcripts are of phone calls between Avichai Mandelblit, now attorney general, and Gabi Ashkenazi, currently a Blue and White lawmaker. Some right-wing pundits have been claiming 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.
Though their transcripts have been barred from publication by a court order, they were openly read out to participants at Thursday’s Likud-organized “Leumiada” gathering in Eilat by Boaz Golan, a staunchly pro-Netanyahu pundit who founded the fringe news site 0404.
“I promise you that this affair won’t disappear from the national agenda, not until the election and not after the election,” Golan said. “It won’t disappear until every person in Israel knows who Avichai Mandelblit and Gabi Ashkenazi are. There are many things you don’t know that are related to this case. Are you ready? I’m reading out of recordings I have heard.”
An unnamed law enforcement official told Channel 13 that Golan will probably face criminal action for knowingly breaching a gag order and would likely be summoned for questioning under caution.
After facing criticism, Golan contended that he had not breached a gag order and that he had consulted a lawyer before going on stage.
“Drink some water and calm down,” he tweeted. He echoed a demand made by Likud earlier in the day for Acting State Attorney Dan Eldad to allow publication of the material.
The Harpaz affair began in April 2010 when a former IDF intelligence officer named Boaz Harpaz, then serving as a private-sector defense adviser and 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 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 in the upcoming general election on March 2.
The document was soon revealed as a forgery 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. Ashkenazi himself was cleared.
Channel 13 published purportedly new transcripts of calls between Mandelblit and Ashkenazi on Sunday (airing only segments which are not under gag order) that were previously published by Israeli media in 2014.
Channel 13’s timing — just two weeks before the March 2 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 that dates back to 2010.
Writing in the paper, 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 under gag order 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.”