Israel's New Attorney General: Just Another Instance of Netanyahu Stacking the Deck

Anyone with any sense would suspect that Netanyahu's relationship with Cabinet Secretary Avichai Mendelblit will interfere with his judgment and make him yet another gatekeeper who isn't doing his job.

Cabinet Secretary Avichai Mendelblit (right) with PM Benjamin Netanyahu.
Amit Shavi

Once again Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has managed to appoint a gatekeeper after his own heart. In the last round he chose his own former attorney, Yehuda Weinstein, as attorney general, which assured him six years of quiet with regard to the most crucial aspect of his survival – his integrity, and that of his wife.

The “Bibitours” case, in which the two were alleged to have received benefits from nonprofits and tycoons, was dragged out over many years until it finally fizzled into a black hole. The same fate probably awaits the case of improper spending at the prime minister’s residences, a simple investigation that should have taken weeks at most, but has also been dragged out as if it was an international saga with endless participants and plot twists.

When the Knesset was required to choose a state comptroller, Netanyahu and his party colleagues supported Joseph Shapira, one of the most languid, complacent comptrollers the government has ever had. Former Police Commissioner Yohanan Danino was also close to Netanyahu, who extended his term by a year. Danino left behind a shambles, a host of dubious appointments, and a police force that is losing the public’s confidence, but he apparently performed exactly to his boss’ liking.

The Harpaz connection

Now it’s Cabinet Secretary Avichai Mendelblit’s turn to occupy the attorney general’s chair and join the tradition of depressing Netanyahu-era appointments. The chairman of the search committee, former Supreme Court President Asher Grunis, was the only one to oppose Mendelblit’s appointment, which both Netanyahu and Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked favor. The other four members supported Mendelblit. They were apparently not moved by the future attorney general’s involvement in the Ashkenazi-Harpaz affair, an alleged 2010 plot by Lt. Col. Boaz Harpaz and others to illegally undermine the choice of former army chief of staff Gabi Ashkenazi’s successor.

Mandelblit, who was military advocate general at the time, was suspected breach of trust and obstruction of justice in delaying to report to the police that Ashkenazi was holding a copy of the Harpaz document, and in delaying before instructing him to hand over the document to the police, although he did eventually do so. He was also suspected of having shared information with Ashkenazi and his bureau chief, Erez Weiner from the discussions about the case in Weinstein’s office.

About a year ago Mendelblit was questioned under caution in that case, which is also dragging on. At the end of the investigation, the police announced that there was evidence that he had allegedly committed fraud, obstruction of justice, and breach of trust. Weinstein closed the case against him earlier this year without clearly explaining why, but asked the government ministers to reconsider the propriety of Mendelblit being cabinet secretary, which never happened.

Mendelblit’s involvement in the Harpaz saga was indeed minor; he was no more than a bit player. However, Weinstein insisted on questioning him under caution because “he lied more than once” to police and State Comptroller’s Office investigators. “Contrary to what he told the state comptroller, it turned out that he indeed gave information from discussions in my office about the Harpaz case to the chief of general staff, and contrary to his testimony to the police, he did not update me in real time about discovering that the chief of general staff had the document,” Weinstein said.

Mendelblit himself feels that the whole investigation was a scandal, a conspiracy to foil his appointment as attorney general – a conspiracy that involved Weinstein, police officers, associates of former Defense Minister Ehud Barak and several leading journalists. He believes Weinstein acted out of resentment that Netanyahu would often prefer his legal advice over Weinstein’s.

But the role the future attorney general may or may not have played in the Harpaz case should not have been the primary concern of the search committee; rather, it should have been the fact that the man has occupied a position of trust in Netanyahu’s cabinet for several years. It is this close relationship with Netanyahu that should have blocked him from getting the position. Anyone with any sense would suspect that this relationship will interfere with Mandelblit’s independent judgment and make him yet another gatekeeper who isn’t doing his job, which is to rein in those in power and serve the public interest.

The members of the search committee, who chose Mendelblit even though they were presented with more independent candidates, apparently haven’t bothered to look around and see what has transpired here over the past several years, during which the prime minister picked his gatekeepers with tweezers; how public institutions have deteriorated and are now headed by people who don’t command respect. The search committee in this instance served the interests of the regime, not necessarily those of the public. The feeling is that the outcome was predetermined and the search committee was merely rubber-stamping the desired nominee.

The minimum that we should expect now from Mendelblit is that he disqualify himself from dealing with any criminal allegations connected to Netanyahu, his family, or his associates. Now that the die has been cast – assuming the appointment is approved by the cabinet and survives any subsequent High Court of Justice challenges – we can only hope that perhaps he’ll surprise us and that those who wanted him will have cause to regret it.