Analysis

The Man Who Holds the Key to the Netanyahu Graft Investigation

Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit will be the person who ultimately decides whether the prime minister has a case to answer after the police finish their questioning.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with Avichai Mendelblit, November 2015.
Dan Balilty/AP

For the police, their interrogation interview with the prime minister is what flying an F-35 is to the Israel Air Force. And not just because of the stealth. It’s vital not to make a mistake, lest the precious jet crashes – what an expense, what an embarrassment. So in anticipation of the first takeoff, thorough preparation is required, including simulated sorties.

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The Lahav 433 fraud investigation unit managed to conceal not only the details of the case, dubbed “1000,” but also the arrangements preceding it. In the past, a chart on the wall of the unit’s head showed the connections linking the people involved to the case. In a discussion with the investigation team, the participants would refer to the names on the chart – with or without photos – and the relations connecting them. This time, for fear of the lie detector or that the information would leak to the suspect, there was complete silence.

The police refuse to reveal who played the part of the interviewee in their simulated questioning. Perhaps the police need no outside help, since they have a considerable amount of printed and recorded material from previous investigations into Netanyahu’s affairs in the late 1990s. He displays a pattern, the prime minister’s former contractor, Avner Amedi, said in the 1999 investigation into the alleged submission of invoices to the state treasury over private apartment renovation works.

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Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at his office in Jerusalem, July 1, 2016
URIEL SINAI / NYT

None of Netanyahu’s former investigators survived in the police force long enough to take part in the current performance. The suspect’s status has also changed. In the previous investigation, he was the one who visited the police, because he was only a former prime minister, without official powers, and – even more important – when he resigned from the Knesset he lost his parliamentary immunity.

The investigators found ample material in his computers, offices and James Bond briefcase, including notes he made in preparation for his interview following consultation with his lawyer, Jacob Weinroth.

Netanyahu remained Netanyahu, Weinroth remained Weinroth and even the latter’s requests not to question Sara Netanyahu have hardly been updated. In 1999, Weinroth cited her “privacy” in the matter of her fastidious cleanliness and order. And a little over a year ago, he once again dealt with his client Sara’s condition in his parting conversation with his friend, then-Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein.

The story of the gifts that the Netanyahus were suspected of stealing in the 1990s was exposed by Amedi during the probe into how their private expenses of moving and mending were charged to the state. In a secret agreement with then-Jerusalem District Attorney Moshe Lador, Amedi testified about the tens of thousands of shekels he allegedly gave Ezra Seidoff from the Prime Minister’s Office, and “stealing gifts that were given to Israel’s prime ministers, their homes or families, during Netanyahu’s term or earlier, by the Netanyahu family.”

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Asked about gifts he received, Netanyahu admitted to cigars from friends and pens. Asked about a painting by Israeli artist Moshe Castel, which had been taken to his home, Netanyahu told his interrogators, “Castel? Don’t know, haven’t seen it. First I’m hearing of it.”

“Isn’t it hanging in your work room?”

“Work room? There’s no such painting in my work room.”

“In your wife’s?”

“Oh, I didn’t notice. So it’s hanging there.”

Attention to separating between private and state matters wasn’t a priority for Netanyahu. In his trips abroad in the first eight months of his first term in 1996, he and his wife charged the state $4,000 for personal expenses, plus some 2,000 Swiss francs. His office accountant, Ami Talmor, demanded of Avigdor Lieberman – then-director general in the Prime Minister’s Office – to deduct the sum from Netanyahu’s pay check, in six consecutive payments. The state treasury, in the form of the Netanyahu couple, provided a good living to hairdressers in New York, Washington, London, Paris, Lisbon and Davos. The couple spent time at the theater, rented skiing equipment. In Israel, meanwhile, in shekels they bought razor blades (probably for him), tampons (probably for her), movie tickets and products (the Netanyahus have a preference for Johnson & Johnson).

The link between the terms “gifts” and “friends” already hovered over the Amedi investigation back in the ’90s. Not only did Amedi the contractor refuse to bill the Netanyahus for private jobs, including moving Sara’s parents from Tivon to Jerusalem, as a sort of suspended gift. He also tried to make friends with the prime minister and his wife. “A kind of pattern was formed,” Netanyahu told the police. “He’s nice, he’s cordial, he’s a friend, he’s friendly.” And he also wanted a thing or two for himself and his family.

Sara was told by the investigators, “We’re telling you that your new version is a result of consultation with attorney Weinroth. After you found that there’s a testimony incriminating you, you needed to fix the earlier version.”

She responded: “Nonsense. One can suspect my IQ is higher than 4.”

Later, asked to detail the friends and relatives who had showered her with gifts, if indeed they did, she got angry, snapping, “You’re impertinent!” But she couldn’t remember who the friend was whom she said had given her silver candlesticks. When they suggested she’d given a list of gifts and givers only after coordinating her story, she replied, “Don’t remember, not even the past year’s gifts. And I don’t want to say, either.”

Later, she did give a few names. It was suspected that the story of gifts from friends was a cover for stealing state property. The police had already asked in the ’90s about Netanyahu’s seemingly unilateral financial relations with Ron Lauder. The investigators said Lauder had employed Fleur Cates – Netanyahu’s second wife and Sara’s predecessor – in one of his companies. Following a report by a Jewish American journalist, they suspected that Lauder helped Netanyahu finance the purchase of his apartment on 35 Gaza Street, Jerusalem, for $460,000 – more than half of which was converted to shekels.

Whether the current investigators dug into the paperwork from the previous investigation, or whether it’s a coincidence, somehow Lauder’s name reportedly popped up again in the current probe. (Lauder has denied any connection to the current investigations into Netanyahu)

The police officers and attorneys conducting the investigation have received legal opinions describing the behavior attributed to Netanyahu as criminal, or delinquent. Netanyahu is certain to present an opposing opinion, by a private attorney, who believes the opposite is true. Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit, as he explained last year, wouldn’t have backed a criminal investigation if he had assumed a judge who looked at the charges and investigation material would prefer Netanyahu’s legal opinion.

As an innocent victim, Netanyahu’s vocabulary is limited: persecution; nothing in it; I’m being set up; the investigators are politically biased against me. Procedure, codex, law – they’re a matter for clerks, not leaders. Moses didn’t get approval for the route through Sinai; Churchill was negligent in reporting his personal expenses.

The case will be weighed on the scales of justice according to the strength of the evidence, the witnesses’ credibility and their assessed fortitude under cross-examination in the mind battle with the suspect and his attorneys. The weighed is no less important than the weight. Mendelblit said along the way things that corroborate and refute every hypothesis. Thus, he accumulated a double purpose alibi, for both investigating and closing the case. Only at the decisive stage will it emerge if he really meant business. Closing the case arbitrarily could be turned around by the Supreme Court and cloud his chances of joining it when his tenure ends.