The Missing 18 Minutes That Could Determine the Harpaz Affair

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Lt. Col. (res.) Boaz Harpaz claims that former IDF Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. (res.) Gabi Ashkenazi tried to coerce him into playing down the ties between them, after the police opened an investigation into a forged document to which the two were linked. (An official military document was leaked to the press in August 2010 in a bid to sway the appointment of Ashkenazi's successor. It later turned out that Harpaz had fabricated the document.)

Harpaz, it appears, is offering himself as a sort of state's witness: He is claiming that Ashkenazi made efforts during his term at the army's helm to disrupt the probe. This was the bottom line that emerged from the interviews Harpaz gave over the weekend to the daily newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth and Channel 1.

Parallels between the so-called Harpaz affair and the 1974 Watergate scandal in the U.S. have been previously drawn. Richard Nixon's downfall began when it emerged that the American president had obsessively recorded every conversation held in his office, thus unwittingly documenting the efforts by himself and his aides to cover up their wrongdoing. Ashkenazi's imbroglio unfolded in a similar manner, when the attorney-general inadvertently learned that conversations in the IDF chief's bureau had also been recorded.

But the resemblance between the two scandals goes even deeper. A turning point for Nixon was the discovery that 18.5 minutes had been erased from his tapes - missing minutes that were assumed to deal with the president's attempts to cover up the investigation.

Eighteen minutes are also missing from Ashkenazi's tapes: A conversation held between the IDF chief's landline and a landline at the home of a friend of his wife, Ronit. The conversation took place on August 8, 2010, two days after Channel 2 first revealed the document that later turned out to have been forged. It was also the day that the police launched their inquiry into the affair. Until now, only Asheknazi's account has been reported: namely, that he had told Harpaz to tell the police nothing but the truth. That was backed up by a recorded conversation between Ashkenazi and Col. Erez Weiner, his adjutant, in which the IDF chief said that he intended to ask Harpaz to stick to the truth.

But Harpaz is now claiming that the nature of the conversation was different. According to Harpaz, Ashkenazi had asked him to play down their acquaintance during questioning and to explain that none of the more than 1,000 conversations and text messages that were exchanged between Harpaz and Ronit Ashkenazi involved the IDF chief.

His claim is in line with the somewhat odd explanation provided by Ashkenazi to the General Staff, after the affair was revealed, that Harpaz wasn't a regular visitor to his home. Jurists familiar with the case said the explanation could potentially have criminal ramifications, if proved incorrect. In 1986, attorney Ram Caspi was convicted of harassing a witness on the basis of an even flimsier case.

The Achilles’ heel of the argument is, of course, the witness himself. Harpaz has already provided many conflicting stories. He has denied any role in forging the document during police questiong, then admitted it and then retracted it again in interviews with the media. The comptroller’s report on the Harpaz affair consistently accuses him of lying. Who can guarantee that his version of that night is what really happened? Further evidence is needed. Without it, it’s a question of Harpaz’s word against Ashkenazi’s.

For his part, Ashkenazi has denied coordinating his testimony with that of Harpaz and has denied the rest of his allegations.

Another important allegation that came up in the Channel 1 interview had to do with the possible involvement of Ashkenazi and his people in collecting material about building violations at Maj. Gen. Yoav Galant’s Moshav Amikam home. Those allegations - that Galant had seized public land near his home - cost him the Chief of Staff job at the last minute, about six months after the Harpaz document was exposed as a forgery. Harpaz says that, with the knowledge of Gabi and Ronit Ashkenazi, he had been in touch with the people in possession of the building documents and says Ashkenazi prodded him to turn them in to the state comptroller.

Galant belatedly confessed to some of the land claims against him, but it has never been confirmed that Ashkenazi, the outgoing chief of staff, played a role in derailing his successor. Ashkenazi himself has denied any involvement.

But here’s the thing: It has been apparent for a long time now that the Harpaz document is not the whole story. The picture that emerges from the interviews – and, again, it’s tough to know what part of the testimony is credible – is of conduct similar to that of a crime family: collecting evidence of wrongdoing and using it to extort rivals. Beyond the suspicions of criminal behavior, if it turns out that Harpaz is being truthful, it would reveal an unprecedented level of entrenched corruption in the highest level of the military – far beyond that which has already been revealed by the state comptroller, as serious as that is.

The key question is whether there is evidence that can corroborate Harpaz’s story. So far the evidence appears to be twofold: the text messages exchanged among the main suspects and the recordings made in the chief of staff’s office. Harpaz is offering the police his testimony as supplementary evidence. The investigators, who have been busy for the past two months sorting through the extraordinary amount of evidentiary material discovered by the state comptroller and the office of the military advocate-general, will soon be summoning those involved for initial rounds of questioning. It doesn’t look like they’re rushing to strike a deal with Harpaz.

The new allegations demonstrate once again the extent to which the police failed in their initial investigation in August 2010, when investigators made do with fingering Harpaz as the forger and issued a surprising announcement to the effect that no higher-ups were involved in wrongdoing. It will be interesting to see how the second investigative crew will treat the recordings that demonstrate a friendship between Ashkenazi and the chief of police at the time, David Cohen, who arguably should have kept his distance from the investigation.

Last week wasn’t the best week for Gabi Ashkenazi. He resigned as chairman of the board of Shemen Oil and Gas Resources after the Yam 3 well came up dry, and was then subject to the current round of interviews Harpaz has been granting. Boaz Harpaz long ago deserted the Ashkenazi camp. The question now is what will happen with the other members of the camp, like his former aide Erez Weiner and former IDF spokesman Avi Benayahu.

While doing his current interview circuit, Harpaz told an emotional tale about how he had broken down and confessed to what he said were false allegations against him, because of humiliating police interrogation tactics. Ashkenazi, Weiner and Benayahu are not as experienced at police interrogations as other high-level officials or former officials, like Avigdor Lieberman and Ehud Olmert. For them, it will be the first time they've been questioned by the Israel Police in a criminal investigation. And the police won’t be quite as generous with the VIP treatment as they were last time around.

Gabi Ashkenazi returning to Israel from a recent trip.Credit: Moti Milrod

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