As trial nears, Netanyahu’s associates go after attorney general

Loyalists of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have ramped up their attacks on the legal system and mudslinging against Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit.

al-monitor Israel's Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit announces his indictment of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on corruption charges, in Jerusalem Nov. 21, 2019. Photo by REUTERS/Ammar Awad.
Ben Caspit

Ben Caspit

@BenCaspit

Topics covered

harpaz affair, indictment, corruption, avichai mandelblit, israeli politics, benjamin netanyahu

May 12, 2020

10 days after his scheduled swearing in as Israel’s 35th prime minister, on May 24, Benjamin Netanyahu is due to walk into the Jerusalem District Court for the reading of his criminal indictment. The cover page of the thick volume reads, “The State of Israel v. Benjamin Netanyahu.” Its appendix includes the names of some 300 witnesses. The charges: bribery, fraud and breach of trust. The historic indictment, the first against an incumbent Israeli prime minister, bears the signature of Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit.

Nonetheless, in the court of public opinion, Netanyahu has already made his accuser out as the accused. A wave of mudslinging is turning Mandelblit from state prosecutor to defendant, at least in the eyes of Netanyahu’s acolytes. Calls are growing for Mandelblit’s suspension or at least a criminal probe into his actions, both virtually impossible under Israeli law. Reports of alleged wrongdoing by Mandelblit and anyone linked to Netanyahu’s prosecution are flooding the media. Netanyahu’s emissaries and his many outspoken defenders are busy impugning Mandelblit 24/7.

And Netanyahu? He supposedly has nothing to do with it. He is busy forming a national unity government with his political rivals while quietly operating the machinery crushing the attorney general who dared accuse him of grievous criminal offenses. The success of the system is worrying. Less than two weeks before his arraignment, no one is talking about the charges against him and how Israel is about to be led by a prime minister who will spend his days in court and his nights running the country.

The Netanyahu system is simple. He places his people in key bastions and strategic points; he gathers information and pulls it out when the time comes. The current material that Netanyahu’s aides are dusting off for use against Mandelblit has to do with an obscure scandal known as the “Harpaz affair,” which erupted 10 years ago and prompted lengthy investigations against then-army chief Gabi Ashkenazi and a series of other senior office holders. The affair, which involved an alleged failed attempt by an Ashkenazi associate to smear the leading candidate to succeed him, erupted with a bang and subsided with a whimper, with no indictments filed. Mandelblit, then the IDF advocate general, was one of those investigated. While his conduct in the case was examined, the allegations against him were dismissed and the case was closed.

And who went on to appoint him as cabinet secretary in 2013 and then backed his appointment as attorney general in 2016? Benjamin Netanyahu, despite a detailed letter from then-Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein, who was harshly critical of Mandelblit’s conduct in the Harpaz affair. Netanyahu was fully aware of the ins and outs of the case but nonetheless placed Mandelblit in one of the most sensitive positions in government as his personal appointment. Anyone familiar with Netanyahu’s MO knows he always appoints those who will be most beholden to him for the favor, often people with skeletons in their closets he can use against them.

Ahead of his indictment, which Mandelblit announced in November 2019 and filed in court in January 2020, Netanyahu pulled out a secret weapon. First, he took control of the justice minister’s position following the resignation of Ayelet Shaked, a strong personality he replaced with a Likud backbencher named Amir Ohana. The man, beholden to Netanyahu and his coterie, immediately engaged Mandelblit in a fierce battle. When state prosecutor Shai Nitzan ended his term in December 2019, Ohana did all he could to fill his shoes with candidates who were anathema to Mandelblit. His bid failed the first time around, but was ultimately successful. Acting state prosecutor Dan Eldad (a transition government cannot make permanent appointments) immediately scanned emails sent by his predecessor and documents from the ministry’s safes. The classified emails and piles of paperwork, were designed to paint Mandelblit as unfit to lead Netanyahu’s prosecution. One of the cases dug out was the Harpaz scandal. Netanyahu’s emissaries are now saying that 10-year-old incriminating evidence against Mandelblit was buried during the probe against him. The material, they claim, proves Mandelblit obstructed the course of the investigation conducted at the time against his direct superior, Ashkenazi, who on May 14 will join Netanyahu’s new government.

A summary of these absurd developments: An attorney general named to his position as a personal appointment by the prime minister is under pressure to step aside because of dubious decade-old material, despite the case against him being dismissed after legal review and despite the statute of limitations. The prime minister, whose bribery trial starts later this month, has the approval of the nation’s top court to remain in power.

Mandelblit is not the only target of the vicious hunt. Former state prosecutor Nitzan, who to Netanyahu’s loyalists is the force behind the criminal probes, is also a popular target. The entire rule of law is under attack. The next stage of the delegitimization campaign is expected to focus on the court, particularly the three District Court judges assigned to Netanyahu’s trial. They have already been smeared as members of a “leftist panel” aiming to bring down the popular prime minister.

These venomous ideas have many adherents, who make up almost half the citizens of the Middle East’s only democracy. The prime minister’s son, Yair Netanyahu, has mounted a campaign of vicious tweets, fanning the flames threatening the country’s law enforcement bastions. In one of the them, he dubbed the justices “Illuminati” in a clear reference to the alleged conspiracy to unseat the elected prime minister. In another, he depicted Mandelblit as the Godfather of movie fame. Given this state of affairs, no one would be surprised if Mandelblit finds the severed head of a horse on his doorstep one morning. In Israel of 2020, anything goes.

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