Analysis

AG's Expansion of Legal Team in Netanyahu Case Could Indicate Leniency to Come

Decision to increase the number of attorneys raises speculation that he's seeking indictments for only the most minor charges – fraud and breach of trust

Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit meets with law students at Bar Ilan University, Ramat Gan, November 28, 2018.
Meged Gozani

Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit’s decision to expand the legal staff handling the cases involving Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu may be a sign he’s seeking to wind up the saga – by ensuring the prime minister is indicted for only the most minor of charges for which he’s suspected, fraud and breach of trust.

It’s impossible to prove this or read his brain by attaching electronic probes to his head, but it’s worth noting the tell-tale signs.

The Netanyahu cases were handled from the outset by the Jerusalem District Attorney’s office headed by Nurit Litman. But ties between Litman’s office and Mendelblit’s exploded in a dispute over differences of interpretation of the recordings of Netanyahu’s conversations with Yedioth Ahronoth publisher Noni Mozes.

Litman viewed their dialogue as a suspected give-and-take negotiation between a prime minister and a powerful publisher, and sought to intensify the investigation. Mendelblit, with the backing of several attorneys, was dissatisfied with the material and skeptical of whether the material in the recording justified questioning Netanyahu.

>> Netanyahu's code words for cigars, a friend's luxury yacht and one frantic call: Noose tightens around PM

In the ensuing months, Litman was promoted to deputy state prosecutor and Mendelblit took advantage of the opportunity to pull the Netanyahu file away from Jerusalem. He handed over the case to his favorite prosecutor, Liat Ben-Ari, who handled taxation and finance issues and the mega Holyland corruption case.

Mendelblit has often complimented Ben-Ari and her colleagues, but well knows there’s a substantial chance they will find a classical case for bribery in Case 400, which deals with preferential news coverage.

It is quite possible that Mendelblit – via a legal team that has just recently joined the plan to build a coalition that would help him soften any future recommendations by Ben-Ari, and to lead the Netanyahu case to more comfortable pastures for the prime minister – is heading toward a conclusion that would allow Netanyahu to continue in office while handling the fight to prove his innocence.

The attorney general has huge influence over the fate of criminal cases against the Netanyahus, but he will not have the ultimate say. Mendelblit needs an inside support group, especially considering that he’s shooting for lessened charges or to close the file that’s oozing with suspicion.

Mendelblit’s predecessor, Yehuda Weinstein, couldn’t have averted charging Avigdor Lieberman for the main allegations against him without the prosecution team that led the case, whose members were under pressure to do something in the final stretch.

The attorney general who preceded Weinstein, Meni Mazuz, couldn’t close the Greek islands file and attach a more lenient explanation to the corrupt contract which is worth millions between contractor David Appel and adviser Gilad Sharon, without the support of a group of chosen attorneys who stood in line with the new boss’s whitewash.

Two years ago Mazuz, who went on to experience a revolution of consciousness, displayed aggression in his handling of corruption cases of top officials, said he fears a creeping moral corruption of sensitive systems. It seems likely that he was also referring to the Justice Ministry.

In recent weeks, under the radar, the attorney general’s office has been holding meetings about the fate of the Netanyahu files almost daily. There are too many attorneys in attendance with too diverse a set of views on the evidence tucked into these cases. Two of the senior figures have a rare musical ear to spot what the authority is looking for and an uncanny ability to interpret reality in a way to permit the force to continue doing what it wants without interruption or brakes.

The number of people handling the Netanyahu cases at the Justice Ministry is tremendous, and resembles the battalion that sat uselessly and unjustifiably for years on the Lieberman cases. Such a proliferation of attorneys is an advantage only to an indecisive attorney general: he will never find enough subordinates to help him lead the case to the place he wants.

Mendelblit said recently at the ministry that the one who will make the ultimate decision whether Netanyahu faces trial and for which charges, is actually a triumvirate, of himself, a passive state prosecutor, Shai Nitzan, and Ben-Ari.

It is doubtful whether Ben-Ari was happy with the decision to increase the number of decision makers. Mendelblit’s decision to add more attorneys is a clear hint of his concern about the agenda of the taxation and finance attorney.

The ministry has made it clear again and again that the newly recruited attorneys aren’t there to find any black holes in the file. In the past, prosecutors have gone this route, and it’s not illegitimate.

Former state prosecutor Moshe Lador, for example, asked before deciding whether to charge Ehud Olmert in the Bank Leumi case for two documents – a draft charge sheet and one which explains why the case ought to be shut. But he asked the same team to provide both narratives.

Mendelblit’s decision to inflate the number of attorneys dealing with Netanyahu’s cases raises concerns that despite the marathon meetings, the proliferation of voices will lead to further foot-dragging in deciding and make it an easier possibility for Mendelblit to seek a result that would strive to throw a bone to all those waiting for the gong to be sounded.

We’re all graduates of the Lieberman case. We remember how the case began, how it ended and how much time it took the ministry to decide its fate.

We are still in the early stages where all possibilities are open – from shutting the files to charging Netanyahu for bribery – but it’s advisable to stay alert in the coming months and to closely follow every step of Mendelblit’s and their meaningful hints as to what the future has in store.