Watchdog seeks to prevent private AG-Netanyahu meetings
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Watchdog seeks to prevent private AG-Netanyahu meetings

Movement for Quality Government says the meetings constitute a conflict of interest due to ongoing probes of PM

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (left) and Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit at a July 2015 cabinet meeting, when Mandelblit was serving as cabinet secretary. (Emil Salman/Pool)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (left) and Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit at a July 2015 cabinet meeting, when Mandelblit was serving as cabinet secretary. (Emil Salman/Pool)

A government watchdog group Sunday petitioned the High Court of Justice to intervene to stop private meetings between Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, due to the multiple criminal investigations into the prime minister that Mandelblit is overseeing.

The Movement for Quality Government in Israel asked the court to instruct Mandelblit to explain why he is continuing to hold such meetings when they present concerns of “a serious conflict of interest” and the “contamination” of the investigation process, the organization said.

The prime minister is under investigation in three corruption cases.

The group asked for a conditional order demanding the attorney general explain why he is not refraining from private meetings without someone else present, or, as an alternative, that the court demand Mandelblit explain why he is not appointing a replacement to fill in for him in the Netanyahu cases.

Mandelblit, a former cabinet secretary, was appointed by Netanyahu to the position of attorney general in February 2016. The petition noted that Mandelblit is the sole authority to ultimately decide on whether or not to press charges against Netanyahu.

“There is concern of serious harm and contamination of the criminal process when the person who has the sole authority to decide on opening an investigation and putting a person on trial is meeting alone with the person in question,” the petition said.

“There is also a sharp personal conflict of interest in which the attorney general finds himself as long as he heads the prosecution system on the one hand and continues to meet privately with the prime minister who is suspected of criminal activity, on the other hand.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife Sara Netanyahu at the Knesset in Jerusalem, June 28, 2017. (Olivier Fitoussi/Pool)

According to Hadashot TV news, the two men have met privately more than 70 times since the opening in January 2017 of criminal investigations in which Netanyahu is a suspect.

“As long as the attorney general continues to meet with the prime minister alone while is running the proceedings in his case, there is a concern that the criminal process will be impaired and there will be harm to the public faith in legal justice, for which the attorney general is responsible,” the organization said.

“Despite these things, the attorney general continues to choose to knowingly put himself in a situation of serious conflict of interest, while exposing himself and the prime minister to obstruction of justice and the contamination of the criminal procedure, while causing fatal harm to the public faith in the entities entrusted with the investigations of the prime minister.”

Mandelblit has faced criticism over the prolonged period of time the investigations have taken, while defending himself against claims of foot-dragging by saying the cases must be handled carefully.

In Case 1000, or the so-called gifts case, Netanyahu is suspected of “systematically” demanding benefits worth about NIS 1 million ($282,000) from billionaire benefactors, including Arnon Milchan and Australian resort owner James Packer, in exchange for favors. Police handed the case over to the prosecution in February with recommendations for a bribery charge.

Prosecutors have yet to formulate an opinion on two other probes involving Netanyahu: Case 2000, in which police have also recommended an indictment but which was reopened earlier this month due to new evidence, and Case 4000, which is still an active investigation.

Case 2000 involves a suspected illicit quid-pro-quo deal between Netanyahu and Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper publisher Arnon Mozes that would have seen the prime minister weaken a rival daily, the Sheldon Adelson-backed Israel Hayom, in return for more favorable coverage from Yedioth.

Case 4000 involves suspicions that Netanyahu made regulatory decisions favoring the Bezeq telecom giant, and in exchange demanded favorable coverage from the popular Walla news site. Both Bezeq and Walla are owned by the same man, Shaul Elovitch.

Netanyahu and his wife have denied wrongdoing in all of the cases.

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