The damaging final days of an admirable attorney general

Mandelblit worked assiduously to protect the essential interests of justice, democracy and the national good… until almost the very end of his term

David Horovitz

David Horovitz is the founding editor of The Times of Israel. He is the author of "Still Life with Bombers" (2004) and "A Little Too Close to God" (2000), and co-author of "Shalom Friend: The Life and Legacy of Yitzhak Rabin" (1996). He previously edited The Jerusalem Post (2004-2011) and The Jerusalem Report (1998-2004).

Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit attends a farewell ceremony for outgoing state prosecutor Shai Nitzan in Jerusalem, December 18, 2019. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)
Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit attends a farewell ceremony for outgoing state prosecutor Shai Nitzan in Jerusalem, December 18, 2019. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Few if any fair-minded observers or insiders doubt the integrity of Israel’s newly retired attorney general Avichai Mandelblit, who this week completed his six-year stint in the most scalding of Israel’s legal hot seats.

The attorney general’s job is near-impossible in its very essence. Its holder serves both as the chief legal adviser to the government and as the head of the state prosecution — which, in Israel’s increasingly stained political reality, has meant intermittently prosecuting the very ministers and even prime ministers he is simultaneously advising.

In Mandelblit’s term, that involved ordering an investigation and then the prosecution of the prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, who had appointed him to the post. The ongoing case, with which Mandelblit’s name will be forever linked, saw him castigated by the left for ostensibly slowing the probe and seeking to minimize the charges, and by the right (in an assault on his rectitude led by Netanyahu himself) for fabricating the allegations in a transparent and successful effort to remove the Israeli “national camp” from power.

While Netanyahu accuses Mandelblit of subverting Israeli democracy to engineer a political coup, Mandelblit has himself made clear that he came to regard Netanyahu as a direct threat to Israel’s democratic regime — an increasingly autocratic leader who was working illicitly and systematically to corral and skew the country’s core establishments, including law enforcement, the judiciary and the media, to his permanent advantage.

Mandelblit was quoted in December as telling associates that as the criminal cases against Netanyahu moved forward, there had been “a sophisticated attempt” by the then-prime minister to “change the DNA” of the justice system and the free press. For example, he reportedly elaborated, Netanyahu sought to appoint state prosecutors and Supreme Court judges who would protect him and ensure the cases against him were closed. Israel had pulled through “by the grace of God,” Mandelblit reportedly added, but the danger was not over. “We need safeguards for the future. It could repeat itself. There’s no guarantee for democracy, that’s my lesson from all this.”

The outgoing AG returned to the theme on Sunday, during his final appearance at a cabinet meeting. In only slightly more circumspect remarks, publicly this time, Mandelblit declared, without mentioning Netanyahu’s name: “There were those who tried to present the harm [they sought to cause] to the rule of law as an ideological move, under the pretext of ‘governance.’ But time and time again, we saw that what really stood behind these moves was a desire to advance personal interests, severely damaging the principle of fidelity to the public.”

Why this departing public servant, patently unnerved by the potential weakness of our democracy and horrified by the misdoings and alleged misdoings of our most powerful holders of public office, would, therefore, elect to end his term with a rash of hastily arranged plea deals, and one — with Netanyahu — that got derailed at the last moment, only Mandelblit can fully explain.

The latest speculative supposition among Hebrew media legal commentators is that the attorney general simply reached his final days in office exhausted — battered by the opprobrium from all sides, by the demonstrations near his home (and even, on one particularly despicable occasion, the vandalism of his father’s grave), and by the sheer accumulated weight of his responsibilities and challenges — and determined to leave as few hot potatoes as possible for his successor.

Sadly, whatever the motivations, the hasty plea dealing of his last weeks threatens to undermine the patience and rigor of Mandelblit’s previous six years.

Shas party leader Aryeh Deri announces he will not be leaving public life, a day after he was sentenced for tax offenses, during a press conference at the Knesset, in Jerusalem, on February 2, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Mandelblit’s plea bargain with Aryeh Deri was brazenly exploited by the Shas leader on Wednesday, the very day after his sentencing: Deri, a recidivist who the attorney general spared a second seven-year ban from public life for moral turpitude, announced that he would continue to lead Shas, and run in the next elections, in direct contradiction of the sentencing specifications.

His uncertain yes-no handling of a plea bargain with Netanyahu suggests a failing confidence either in the case, the courts, or the strongmindedness of his successor.

Malka Leifer; former deputy health minister Yaakov Litzman (YouTube screenshot / Yonatan Sindel; Flash90)

And the unconscionable plea bargain he reached with former health minister Yaakov Litzman risks encouraging the very emboldening he has warned against — of grave misdeeds by those who hold the greatest power. Litzman flagrantly abused his office to intimidate the key psychiatrist who, after initially determining that alleged serial pedophile Malka Leifer was mentally fit to face justice, changed his opinion and thus delayed the extradition of the former school principal for trial on 70 sex offense charges in Australia. The deputy minister met directly and repeatedly with the psychiatrist, including summoning him to his office, as he successfully impeded the pursuit of justice.

For this most blatant abuse of power, Mandelblit last week negotiated a deal under which Litzman will not go to jail and will not be barred from public office for moral turpitude. Instead, the longtime United Torah Judaism party leader will get off with probation and a derisory fine of less than $1,000.

One can only hope that this outrageous deal — so damaging to public faith in the justice system, and by extension so damaging to respect for the law — is rejected when it’s brought for judicial approval, just as one hopes that Mandelblit’s successor resists the misguided temptation to cut a deal with defendant Netanyahu. For the prosecution of the ultra-divisive former prime minister is the very last case in which a hasty, secretive bargain would serve the essential interests of justice, democracy and the national good — the very interests that Mandelblit worked so assiduously to protect… through almost all of his term.

Related: Unrepentant Deri vows to return to Knesset, a day after tax offense sentencing

Related: Why Israel’s prosecutors would be wise to forgo a plea bargain with Netanyahu

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