A number of Justice Ministry officials and senior police officers objected to the attorney general’s burying of the investigation against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for several months after receiving recorded evidence of his alleged deal with Yedioth Ahronoth publisher Arnon (Noni) Mozes.
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Several justice officials maintain that Netanyahu should have been questioned immediately after the recordings of his secret negotiations with Mozes landed on Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit’s desk six months ago. They say the delay may have sabotaged the investigation.
Others, however, concur with Mendelblit’s moves and say the recordings’ circumstances had to be ascertained before launching an investigation.
In the recordings, Mozes allegedly suggested giving Netanyahu favorable coverage. In return, Netanyahu would stymie Mozes’ biggest competitor, the Sheldon Adelson-owned free newspaper Israel Hayom.
As soon as the tapes arrived it was clear to Justice Ministry officials and police brass handling the case that both men had to be questioned. But the proceedings were delayed due to legal difficulties regarding the use of the tape, together and Mendelblit’s decision to start two different investigations at the same time.
While Jerusalem District Attorney Nurit Litman wanted to question Netanyahu immediately after the recordings were obtained, Mendelblit wanted to corroborate Mozes’ version first.
“As soon as the attorney general heard the recording, he should have launched an investigation and not buried it for so long,” says Commander (ret.) Meir Gilboa, former head of the police national fraud squad. “The long delay seems blatantly implausible. Assuming the reports of those recordings are accurate, there’s more than a reasonable suspicion of criminal activity.”
After retiring from the police, Gilboa headed the investigations department of the Antitrust Authority and worked as senior adviser on public corruption to former State Comptroller Micha Lindenstrauss. While with the police in the 1990s he took part in several investigations against public officials, including MK Rafael Pinhasi (Shas), Interior Minister Aryeh Dery and businessman Gregory Lerner.
“The discussions about opening an investigation against Dery took less than a week,” he says, although the evidence authorities had at the time wasn’t nearly as solid as recorded conversations.
The tapes’ legality and the circumstances in which the recordings were made required internal inquiries and legal opinions to enable using them. Since the talks were recorded by a third party – Netanyahu’s former chief of staff Ari Harow – it was feared they could be seen as illegal wiretapping.
In this case, the question of MKs’ immunity arose. This immunity can be revoked only by a Supreme Court order and only in case of a suspected breach of state security, or murder or manslaughter. “Apparently they had to ask Harow about the recordings’ circumstances,” says (ret.) Deputy Inspector General Ziva Agami-Cohen, former head of the police fraud squad. “The time period seems borderline reasonable to me. It takes time to set meetings with all the officials and to obtain a legal opinion.”
Agami-Cohen believes it is not at all certain that the handling of the recording should have been rushed.
“When such a recording surfaces, it raises many questions,” she says. “What was the statements’ context? Were there previous conversations? Publishers speaking to politicians is not uncommon.”
Decision took several months
Haaretz has learned that it took the police and Justice Ministry several months to conclude that they could make use of the tapes. At that stage the case dubbed “Case 1000” – the investigation into the gifts and perks the Netanyahu family allegedly received from business people – was just beginning. So Mendelbilit opted to wait until the second case was established and investigate both cases together.
A former senior police investigator who dealt with many corruption cases is convinced that valuable time was wasted. “The recordings’ strength is in their authenticity,” he says. “You hear it twice, three times, four times and then you make a decision. If things were delayed only because of legal discussions and not because of covert pertinent investigations, then the time it took to start an investigation is unreasonable.”
“There is no connection between the cigars and this story,” he says about Mendelblit’s decision to investigate both cases at the same time.
Gilboa says the delay in the probe into the recordings case, dubbed “Case 2000,” may have harmed the investigation significantly. “I find it hard to believe that the police kept the tape’s existence a secret,” he said. “I don’t rule out that Harow knew what they found and managed to pass that on to Netanyahu.”
Police Commander (ret.) Moshe Mizrahi, former investigations and intelligence head, believes the gifts case served as a catalyst for opening the investigation into the recordings. “I assume that’s what released Mendelblit’s brakes,” he told Haaretz.
“The fact that Netanyahu would have to be questioned over the second case made it easier for the attorney general to have him questioned about the gifts as well,” he said.
On the police force, Mizrahi was involved in investigating Avigdor Lieberman when the latter served as director general of the Prime Minister’s Office, and former internal security minister Avigdor Kahalani. “In this case, there’s no material to gather, there are two people talking,” Mizrahi said about the recordings.
“The tape and transcript are before their eyes, that’s the main evidence. What remains is to decide to question the two speakers. It’s all there. I cannot explain why they didn’t do it,” he says.
A former senior justice official, who made several decisions about indicting public officials, supports Mendelblit’s conduct.
“It’s not clear that the recording showed there was an offense that had to be investigated,” the official told Haaretz. “In many cases you end one investigation, understand all its circumstances and then move on to another. It’s hard to mix all the probes together. Opening a criminal investigation against a prime minister or a minister is not a simple decision.”