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Israel's Attorney General Knows Netanyahu Can't Stay. Soon He Will Have to Make the Call

Gidi Weitz
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Mendelblit at a press conference in 2019
Mendelblit at a press conference in 2019Credit: Emil Salman
Gidi Weitz

Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit has already understood months ago that Benjamin Netanyahu cannot be both prime minister and a criminal defendant, and Netanayhu's recent behavior has made this clearer.

Several months ago, following the filing of a High Court petition, Mendelblit said that despite the difficulties, Netanyahu could be allowed to form a new government. But the attorney general also buried an exit clause in his legal opinion – one that in the future would permit him to decide that special circumstances had been created to remove Netanyahu from his post.

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“It is not possible to categorically rule out the possibility that in exceptional, concrete circumstances there will be grounds for functional disqualification stemming from the fact that the prime minister is a criminal defendant,” he wrote.

But in the last few months, Mendelblit realized that he must put an end to the bizarre situation permitted by the legislature and High Court (perhaps the weakest in Israeli history). He has understood that “the exceptional concrete circumstances” that he referred to are getting closer, or that at the very least, Netanayhu is flirting with a red line.

Mendelblit has understood that Netanyahu is blatantly exploiting his office to get back at the people who investigated and prosecuted him, that he is investing resources and energy in extricating himself from trial no less than he is in extricating the country from the coronavirus pandemic.

At the beginning of the week, Mendelblit announced that if Netanyahu signs a conflict of interest agreement that bars him from dealing with appointments, legislation and budgeting for the law enforcement and judicial system, the attorney general would not resort to disqualification. But as of now, Netanyahu does not intend to sign such an agreement, and after the deadline, Mendelblit will have to make a fateful decision.

The prime minister's refusal to sign the agreement, coupled with his daily performances and promises of inquiries designed to threaten the prosecutor’s office and the police, cannot be ignored by Mendelblit, and he will soon have to act. But Mendelblit doesn’t strike while the iron is hot.

In the first weeks after he became attorney general, the first chapters of what became the indictment of the prime minister in Case 2000 had already landed on his desk. He became aware of recordings of conversations between the prime minister and Yedioth Aharonoth publisher Arnon Mozes, in addition to information that tycoons headed by Israeli Hollywood producer Arnon Milchan had set up a supply line of gifts to Netanyahu and his family.

The attorney general spent many years too long pondering the cases, deliberating and hesitating, and gave Netanyahu considerable time to recruit an army and prepare the cruel counterassault. Mendelblit is now paying the price for having acted slowly.

We will soon find out if hard times will redeem Mendelblit from his conservative nature and tendency to endlessly deliberate and hesitate. And if that happens, Netanyahu will surely head for elections, running against the enemy – not Yair Lapid, or Ron Huldai or Gadi Eisenkot, but Mendelblit.

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