Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu enjoyed two significant victories over the past week. First, the deal was finalized for a unity government with Benny Gantz that will guarantee his leadership for the coming year and a half – and then the High Court of Justice decided unanimously that the charges on which he will stand trial on May 24 would not prevent him from forming that government.
With those battles contained, his sights seem set on a new war: A full-scale attack on the character of Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit – the man responsible for bringing the indictments against Netanyahu for which he is scheduled to stand trial for fraud, bribery and breach of trust.
The battle against the entire legal system is being led by Netanyahu loyalists, including Amir Ohana, who is in his final days as justice minister before being replaced when the new Netanyahu-Gantz unity government is sworn-in on Thursday.
Ohana is bidding farewell with a whirlwind of allegations, including a blistering Facebook post, citing “conflicts of interests” and “ominous motives,” declaring that “anyone with eyes in his head can see the unprecedented decline in public trust in the State Prosecutor’s Office and the Attorney General’s Office.” The heads of both offices – Mendelblit and outgoing State Prosecutor Shai Nitzan – were instrumental in recommending the indictment against Netanyahu last year.
Events came to a head on Sunday when Ohana met State Comptroller Matanyahu Englman and called on him to investigate Mendelblit's role in the so-called Harpaz affair from nearly a decade ago.
The groundwork for this fight has been long in the making: Mendelblit and Ohana have been antagonists since the day the acting justice minister entered office last June. While the rhetoric by Ohana against Mendelblit specifically, and state prosecutors in general, has become particularly bruising as the clock ticks down to the end of his tenure – it is hardly new.
The latest round of activity began in February, when Haaretz’s Gidi Weitz reported on initial efforts by the Netanyahu camp to “dig up dirt” on Mendelblit – or, as they say in the world of U.S. President Donald Trump, to “investigate the investigators.” The apparent goal of the exercise: Undermining Mendelblit’s credibility ahead of Netanyahu’s trial, which at that time was set to begin in March, just after Israel’s third round of elections in the space of a year.
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According to Mendelblit’s associates, Netanyahu was reportedly “obsessed” with smearing the attorney general. Although the prime minister had viewed Mendelblit as a confidant and handpicked him for the state's top legal post, the new AG eventually oversaw the team of attorneys who investigated and ultimately indicted the prime minister.
In that vein, Netanyahu reportedly ordered his deputies to try to obtain the full transcripts of the Harpaz affair – a complicated scandal that began when Mendelblit served as military advocate general in the Israeli army 10 years ago.
Most of the transcripts related to the affair are sealed under a gag order, though portions have, over the years, been leaked to the press.
Dating from 2011-11, the Harpaz affair involved former Israel Defense Forces officer Boaz Harpaz’s forgery and circulation of a false document that was purported to influence the appointment of the next chief of staff in favor of Yoav Gallant – then-Defense Minister Ehud Barak’s choice for the job. Implicated in the forgery, but never charged in the case, was Gabi Ashkenazi, the chief of staff at the time, who preferred that Benny Gantz succeed him. Ashkenazi had ties to Harpaz, who pled guilty to forgery and fraud, and was sentenced to community service for his actions.
As military advocate general, Mendelblit was questioned in the case regarding whether he had helped protect Ashkenazi, first during the former’s tenure in the IDF and afterward as Netanyahu’s cabinet secretary. Mendelblit was ultimately cleared of any wrongdoing by then-Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein and that decision was upheld by the High Court of Justice.
In early 2016, Mendelblit was being vetted for the attorney general post after his stint as cabinet secretary. Back then, he was viewed as a Netanyahu confidant and the prime minister was his champion, pushing back against any suggestion by then-attorney general Weinstein that Mendelblit had acted improperly regarding Harpaz.
Weinstein suspected that Mendelblit had taken unethical steps to cooperate with and protect Ashkenazi – and that Mendelblit bore a “moral stain” that could render him unsuitable from serving as attorney general.
At the time, Netanyahu preferred to sweep any possible allegations of wrongdoing under the rug; the case against Mendelblit was closed and he received the appointment.
However, after becoming the target of Mendelblit’s investigation in the corruption cases and being charged by the Attorney General’s Office, Netanyahu has reportedly become much more invested in casting doubts on Mendelblit’s conduct by reopening the Harpaz affair.
A spokesman for Netanyahu told Weitz that “the only way to verify that Mendelblit did not act out of extraneous motives in the prime minister’s cases is to lift the gag orders on the recordings and expose to the public the content of the conversations. This is the proper and only request of Prime Minister Netanyahu.”
As the new trial date of May 24 draws closer, the drumbeat to “release the tapes” has been growing louder among Netanyahu loyalists, and theories have been floated on the political right suggesting a kind of long-standing conspiratorial, power-seeking relationship between Gantz, Ashkenazi and Mendelblit.
Over the weekend, those theorists received a boost with a conveniently timed scoop from reporter Ayala Hasson of Channel 13 television news, on the original decision to conceal potentially incriminating conversations between Ashkenazi and Mendelblit, and inconsistencies between Mendelblit’s statements and other evidence.
“This shows how terrible the situation is within law enforcement agencies in Israel,” declared outgoing culture minister and Netanyahu ally Miri Regev, in a statement to the press following the Hasson report. “The time has come to reopen the Harpaz affair and to complete the investigation. The time has come to shake up the law enforcement system.”
While it has been Ohana leading the charge against Mendelblit, he has gotten assistance since early February from Acting State Prosecutor Dan Eldad. Eldad was appointed by Ohana despite Mendelblit’s opposition. Shortly after Eldad took office, he accused the attorney general of “spying” on him by asking prosecutors to report back on the content of their meetings.
Mendelblit has reportedly expressed concern regarding Ohana and Eldad’s chumminess and the frequency of their consultations, which indicates to him that they seemed to be secretly plotting against him. He suggested privately that Netanyahu is behind their actions.
Mendelblit’s misgivings appeared to be born out last week when Eldad asked State Comptroller Englman to look into allegations regarding the “handling of Mendelblit’s case” in the Harpaz affair.
Mendelblit’s suspicions grew when Channel 13's investigative program “Hamakor” ("The Source") appealed a district court’s decision to bar it from airing one of the leaked recordings from the Harpaz investigation. Eldad then asked senior officials in the State Prosecutor's Office to reconsider their position to oppose the release of the tape, which was believed to expose problematic conduct by Mendelblit. Mendelblit told associates he suspected Eldad – who headed the team of prosecutors that dealt with the case a decade ago – of leaking it.
Neither Ohana nor Eldad are in a position to do battle against Mendelblit on Netanyahu’s behalf for much longer. Ohana will be replaced as justice minister this week; Eldad is leaving after Mendelblit opposed an extension of his temporary appointment and the High Court upheld it.
Mendelblit had argued that not only was an extension of Eldad’s appointment unjustified on legal grounds – since his position was temporary, and the government was about to change – but that Eldad had been unprofessional and unethical in his behavior.
On May 3, following the High Court’s ruling, Mendelblit put himself in the role of acting state prosecutor, with daily operations carried out by the deputy state prosecutors. Eldad then charged that Mendelblit had engineered his ouster because he had started looking into the information about the Harpaz affair.
In response, senior prosecutors sent a letter to Eldad assailing his attack on Mendelblit, writing that they were shocked he had decided to “smear the attorney general and his motives for opposing an extension of your term.” Netanyahu aide Jonatan Urich then tweeted that a senior prosecutor who signed the prosecutors’ letter against Eldad would “soon be signing up for unemployment.”
Ohana, in the meantime, penned a letter of protest to the civil service commissioner, objecting to Mendelblit’s wielding of authority over the State Prosecutor’s Office. “The concentration of such powers is incompatible with any principle that underlies our legal system,” the letter said.
In a farewell Facebook post on Saturday night, just four days before he was expected to step down as justice minister, Ohana said he had entered his office “worried” about the integrity of the legal arm of the government and was departing “even more worried.”
He accused the ministry he had led of being “deeply tainted by conflicts of interest, personal ties, cliques and irrelevant considerations,” which have prevented it from being properly investigated.
As a final parting shot against the system he was about to stop leading, Ohana added former State Prosecutor Shai Nitzan, who oversaw the prosecution's proceedings against Netanyahu, to the list of legal insiders he suspected of wrongdoing.
After a leak from his office to Channel 13 showed that Nitzan had used his official email after his retirement, Ohana accused him of having “entered the Justice Ministry’s email system, ostensibly in violation of the law,” and threatened to open up an investigation of the matter before his departure from the ministry.
Nitzan has said Ohana's claim is “entirely unfounded and is part of his ongoing delegitimization campaign against me and the state prosecution,” saying that access to his work email during the three months that he officially remained a ministry employee on leave was merely “standard procedure.”
Ohana capped off his offensive against the prosecutor’s office, during his last days in his post, with an announcement Saturday that he would meet with Englman and ask him to investigate the “sickness” throughout the justice system and specifically, in the prosecutor’s office. He threatened that if Englman refuses to take action, he would form a ministerial commission of inquiry.
The signals from Englman’s office after the two men met Sunday, however, seemed to indicate that the comptroller has little appetite to open an investigation.
If he carries out his threat and establishes a commission designed to “investigate the investigators,” potentially smearing Mendelblit materializes on the eve of Netanyahu’s trial, it will be Ohana's parting gift to the prime minister. It could be seen as sending the message that, unlike Mendelblit, he is offering a loyalty that will never sour.