“This trial can no longer be stopped,” Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit said this week, after he was informed that the Jerusalem District Court had finally decided on a date for the evidentiary part of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s corruption trial: April 5, right after Passover.
But two years ago, after the first of the series of elections, the attorney general was not at all sure that the train would reach its destination: Netanyahu had not yet had a hearing, and it seemed he was safely on his way to establishing a coalition of 65 MKs that would pass a law banning a trial of a sitting prime minister, bring down the already bowed High Court of Justice and allow him to flee from justice.
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“The time has come for them to begin to be afraid,” the prime minister said at the time to his close associates after that election. He was referring to the heads of law enforcement, first and foremost the attorney general. But then MK Avigdor Lieberman decided to bolt the government that was under construction, and Mendelblit saw at that moment more proof of the existence of divine providence. According to his view, if Netanyahu’s plan were to come to pass, Israel’s fragile democracy would have died.
Since then he has seen in Netanyahu’s continued rule a clear and present danger. He is certain that Netanyahu still has enormous motivation to stop the legal proceedings against him, but believes that he has almost no way of doing so.
As reported this week in Haaretz, Netanyahu’s lawyers want to call Mendelblit to the stand as a witness for the defense. The goal: to try to prove that many actions in the investigation were carried out without his approval, which would be against the Basic Law which states that an investigation of the prime minister will only be launched with the consent of the attorney general. That is an interesting defense, but its correspondence to reality is doubtful: One of the reasons that legal proceedings against the prime minister are taking so long is the close supervision by the attorney general of the investigations, and the liberal interpretations he gave in certain cases to evidence against the man who appointed him government secretary at the time.
In December 2016, at the end of a cabinet meeting, Mendelblit asked to meet with the prime minister alone. In that meeting, which lasted 15 minutes, he informed Netanyahu hat he had decided to launch a criminal investigation against him. Mendelblit insisted on delivering the bitter news face to face, three weeks before it became public knowledge. “I maintained a façade,” Mendelblit told his associates, adding, “He, a little less.”
The green light to launch an investigation related only to Case 1000, the charge that Netanyahu allegedly received lavish gifts from two wealthy friends, Hollywood mogul Arnon Milchan and Australian billionaire James Packer, in exchange for political favors such as promoting their business interests or obtaining visas.
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First, Mendelblit authorized that Milchan and his aide Hadas Klein be questioned. They told investigators how they were required to give the Netanyahus cigars, champagne and expensive jewelry. Until the tense meeting and for many months, the attorney general did not say that the prime minister was suspected of criminal acts, although recordings of conversations between Netanyahu and Yedioth Ahronoth publisher Arnon Mozes, in which the two allegedly negotiated a bribery deal, had been placed on Mendelblit’s desk a long time before.
The attorney general authorized an “examination” of the suspicions, and authorization to launch an investigation into the affair was only given on January 5, 2017, the day the head of the national fraud squad, Brig. Gen. Coresh Barnoor, and Chief Superintendent Shlomo Meshulam arrived at the prime minister’s official residence to take his testimony in the case.
Until the last moment, over the strong objections of the prosecution and the police, Mendelblit had been considering making do with open testimony by the prime minister. The attorney general’s hesitation saved the second star of the case from possible arrest: Because Mendelblit was undecided whether to question Netanyahu under caution, meaning he might be charged with a crime, it was decided that Mozes would be questioned before him and not at the same time. If the police had brought Mozes to court before Netanyahu was questioned, the element of surprise would have been lost, and the prime minister would be waiting for his interrogators with a finely worked version by his attorney, the late Jacob Weinroth.
What persuaded Mendelblit to authorize the questioning of Netanyahu was one detail that Mozes provided: “All the meetings between us were on the initiative of the prime minister.”
Mendelblit was very involved in the interrogations at the time; some thought too much so. Major tension developed between Mendelblit and the heads of the Jerusalem district prosecution who oversaw the case and some of the police investigators. A few of them felt the attorney general’s concentration – which manifested itself in authorizing the witnesses to be summoned by the police for questioning, and sometimes even in the questions they would be asked – and his coolness toward the evidence that was collected, are the outcome of his shared past with Netanyahu.
Senior law enforcement officials thought at the time that Mendelblit should avoid dealing with the explosive cases. Mendelblit, for his part, felt he was being pressured by members of the system, also by means of leaks that he was putting the brakes on the investigations.
And then came Chapter Three of the story: In the summer of 2017, the Israel Securities Authority launched an investigation against the controlling shareholder of Bezeq, Shaul Elovitch, on suspicion of fraud. The investigation revealed signs that then-director general of the Communications Ministry, Shlomo FIlber, had been aggressively promoting Bezeq’s interests. “They operated him like a marionette,” a person familiar with the affair told Haaretz at the time. Every attempt to trace Filber’s motive came up empty: He received no benefits from the heads of Bezeq and no cushy job was promised him after retirement.
At the same time, the first evidence emerged that Elovitch had used the Walla news site he owned as a platform to provide favorable coverage of then-Communications Minister Netanyahu. Some people involved in the case thought this may have been Filber’s hidden motive. But Mendelblit was skeptical, and the case went from the securities authority to the prosecution without an investigation of this aspect.
When the prosecution asked Mendelblit for permission to obtain the testimony of three witnesses regarding a certain event, in which a suspicion arose of a connection between benefits to Bezeq and Walla, none of those involved thought the completion of the probe would lead to Case 4000, which alleges that Netanyahu made decisions that benefited Elovitch in exchange for positive coverage on Walla.
In December 2017, the former CEO of Walla, Ilan Yeshua, arrived at the offices of the securities authority. To the shock of the investigators, he gave them detailed evidence based on hundreds of pieces of evidence, about the pressure put on him to turn Walla into Netanyahu’s home site in exchange for huge regulatory gestures. Yeshua’s testimony is what led Mendelblit to cross the Rubicon.
Until Mendelblit filed charges in the various cases, the cult surrounding Netanyahu handled him with kid gloves and focused on a combined assault on then-Police Commissioner Roni Alsheich and former State Prosecutor Shai Nitzan. The prime minister did refer in private conversations to Mendelblit as having stabbed him in the back, but then there was still vague hope that Mendelblit would stop the speeding train. When this hope faded, permission to attack was given.
Today Netanyahu attributes weakness and spinelessness to Mendelblit, whom Netanyahu himself appointed. He believes with all his heart that the so-called deep state, which has sworn to unseat him, blackmailed Mendelblit and forced him to act as he did. The focus of Netanyahu’s defense team on the question of authorization by Mendelblit is meant to reinforce this narrative.
In nightly lectures on the conspiracy against him, the prime minister ignores one piece of information: Eight years, two full terms of an American president, went by between the time Netanyahu retuned to lead the government in 2009 and a criminal investigation was opened against him. By comparison, his two predecessors found themselves in the midst of criminal investigations a few months after they were elected. Even after Netanyahu became a suspect and was indicted, he, and mainly his family, have been given several breaks by the attorney general.
Mendelblit has meanwhile become a prime target of Netanyahu’s supporters. In recent months he has agreed to meet with some of his critics, in an attempt to persuade them that his motives are pure. He had a particularly strange meeting with Army Radio reporter Yaakov Bardugo, who said he feared he was being recorded as he sat in Mendelblit’s office. “I’m putting $2 million aside for legal representation,” said the man who has been questioned in the past on suspicion of corruption and whose case was closed for lack of evidence.
At the beginning of next year Mendelblit will end his term, and in the coming months the race will begin for his successor. If Netanyahu is elected again, he will make every effort to find a person for that office who will put an end to the legal proceedings against him and revolutionize the prosecution, which Netanyahu has called “an existential danger.”
Until Mendelblit retires, stories could crop up that will embarrass him. For example, the recordings by former Bar Association chairman Effi Naveh, while he was waiting for decisions by the prosecution on two criminal charges against him for fraud and soliciting sexual favors. Along with Netanyahu and then-Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked, one of the supporters of Mendelblit’s appointment and the two became close – supposedly evidence of Mendelblit’s poor judgment in choosing allies. It is possible that in conversations between them, which Naveh recorded, the attorney general told him about moves that preceded the appointment as well as his cool opinion of the Netanyahu cases when they were still germinating.
Naveh had a hearing a few months ago, but no decision has been made in the explosive cases. When one is made, the suspect will decide whether to open the gates of hell. But even the exposure of the tapes will not stop the trial. This will be only another chapter in the unending saga of the cases against the prime minister, which should now be close to a decision, rather than to continue for so many years that they turn sour.