Right-wing government ministers attacked Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit at a cabinet meeting on Sunday, accusing him of election interference after he expressed opposition to establishing a committee to investigate the police’s internal investigations unit, Israeli TV reported Friday.
Mandelblit had said that establishing the committee mere weeks before an election could be construed as the result of illegal political horse-trading.
Several of the ministers accused him of hypocrisy, noting that he had filed corruption charges against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during the same period, which they said also amounted to political interference.
The accusations and calls for an even wider investigation into police and the legal system come as part of a campaign by Netanyahu and the right that accuses the law and order community and the media of conspiring to bring down the prime minister and end a decade of right-wing rule.
The establishment of the committee to probe the Police Internal Investigations Department, a division of the Justice Ministry that conducts investigations of alleged misdeeds by the police, had been a key demand of former Blue and White MK Gadi Yevarkan, who jumped ship to Likud just hours before the deadline for registering party slates on January 15.
It was brought to the cabinet by Justice Minister Amir Ohana, a Likud member.
“It feels really strange that we’re gathering to discuss a such a trivial matter, like whether the government can check its own subordinates,” said MK Bezalel Smotrich of the National Union, according to a Channel 12 news report.
“You’ll never convince us that we don’t have that right. My only objection is that it’s only confined to the internal investigations department,” Smotrich said.
Tourism Minister Yariv Levin, who also serves as Likud’s top coalition negotiator, reportedly said to Mandelblit: “Clearly there’s no problem making decisions on criminal matters during elections, there’s no problem holding a hearing or serving an indictment during elections. Even when the prime minister is abroad, you have to do it that day.”
Mandelblit filed an indictment against Netanyahu for charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust on January 28, while the premier was in Washington, DC, for the unveiling of US President Donald Trump’s long-awaited Middle East peace plan.The date for the plenum discussion on the indictment was set before the premier announced he would travel to Washington.
“If your position was consistent across the board, it would be convincing. But this is an unacceptable interference in elections,” Levin reportedly said.
Communications Minister David Amsalem of Likud said: “You yourself took decisions regarding the prime minister. What did you get involved in the elections for? Why was that so urgent?”
Amsalem said that Mandelblit “needs to get checked. Me, they’re watching all the time. All the officials, all the legal advisers. No one is keeping an eye on you. This has nothing to do with elections,” he said.
Netanyahu reportedly kept his silence rather than defend the attorney general, the report said.
Other ministers at the meeting did not join in the attacks on Mandelblit, including Likud’s Tzachi Hanegbi, Gila Gamliel, Ze’ev Elkin, Moshe Kahlon and Yifat Shasha-Biton. Foreign Minister Yisrael Katz and Shas party chief Aryeh Deri avoided the meeting, the report said.
Mandelblit had said the move to investigate the police unit could amount to “election bribery,” a crime under article 122 of the Elections Law, which prohibits offering direct benefits to individuals to affect their vote or to influence them to influence others.
Likud sought to woo Yevarkan, a member of the Ethiopian Jewish community, in order to stump for votes from Ethiopian Jews, who had turned their backs on the ruling party in last year’s elections following a series of high-profile incidents of police violence and amid ongoing concerns over government neglect and discrimination toward the community.
Yevarkan demanded an investigation into the PIID over what many Ethiopian Israelis say is its overly lenient handling of cases of police violence toward Ethiopian Israelis, in particular following the killing of Solomon Tekah, 19, by an off-duty officer last June.
Prosecutors believe the committee won’t be asked to investigate cases of police clashes with Ethiopian Israelis, however, but rather to launch an inquiry into Netanyahu’s claims that three corruption cases against him are an “attempted coup” by the police and state prosecution, a claim that has become central to Likud’s election campaign ahead of the March 2 vote.
The Likud campaign is believed to be planning to point to such an inquiry as evidence that Netanyahu’s claim of a conspiracy against him is well-founded.
While Mandelblit has not opposed the establishment of the committee in principle, he has warned that doing so under an interim, unelected government ahead of elections may be illegal.
In a letter Mandelblit sent to Ohana last week, the attorney general also said establishing the committee in exchange for Yevarkan’s political realignment could amount to election bribery.
At the cabinet meeting Sunday, Levin accused Mandelblit of a double standard for prohibiting forming a cabinet investigative committee while allowing the Knesset to establish a Knesset House Committee to consider Netanyahu’s immunity request ahead of the elections.
Levin noted that the Knesset was permitted “to establish committees close to the elections in a process that concerned the very heart of the electoral process, and in a way that denies a person a basic right given to him under law” — a reference to Netanyahu’s legal right as a member of Knesset to request immunity.
The legal opinion allowing the Knesset to form the House Committee did not come from Mandelblit, but from the Knesset’s own legal adviser, Eyal Yinon.