Why Israel's Attorney General Didn't Pursue the Case Against Netanyahu

Mendelblit himself is convinced, apparently, that he’s acting in a balanced, businesslike manner without making concessions to the man who appointed him cabinet secretary and later supported him in his present position.

Avichai Mendelblit (right) consults with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during a weekly cabinet meeting, September 2015.
Ohad Zwigenberg (Pool)

The police investigation into Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is now drawing to a close, but it provides an insight into how Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit handles political corruption cases.

Mendelblit has been criticized for demanding full control of the inquiry into Netanyahu’s affairs. He tells the police whom to summon for evidence and who to question under caution – even which issues to check and which to disregard.

The main criticism is that he keeps the small team investigating the Netanyahu cases on a tight leash, and has been less than zealous in pursuing the inquiry.

The disagreement between the law enforcement agencies peaked with the case involving Netanyahu, his former bureau chief Ari Harow and the nonprofit organization American Friends of Likud. As Haaretz reported on Thursday, the attorney general blocked the police investigation into the funding the organization gave Netanyahu when he was opposition chairman (2006-2009). The organization was formerly run by Harow, who was appointed Netanyahu’s bureau chief in 2009.

The police investigators said the evidence they gathered raises suspicion that Netanyahu is involved in fraud. They were referring mainly to the organization’s funding an adviser for Netanyahu for tens of thousands of dollars under the guise of other services.

According to the evidence, the adviser was allegedly employed for a year in a fictitious position until at some point Netanyahu feared that the roundabout way in which she was paid would be discovered by the authorities and acted to stop it.

American Friends of Likud also financed Sara Netanyahu’s trips abroad.

Netanyahu rejected the allegations in a statement. “All the actions by the prime minister and his wife at said period, and at any period, were according to the law and protocol. Attempts by certain people in the media to exert undue pressure on law enforcement agencies to act against Netanyahu won’t come to anything this time either, for the simple reason that there’s nothing and there has never been anything [to investigate].”

The police wanted certain key witnesses in the case to testify, including the Netanyahus’ family lawyer David Shimron. But Mendelblit blocked the inquiry, claiming he did not believe it would result in criminal action against the prime minister, given the statute of limitations of 10 years on certain crimes. A number of top police officers and attorneys in the State Prosecutor’s Office disagreed, believing the investigation should be pursued because of its inherent potential. Others supported Mendelblit’s decision.

The Movement for Quality Government on Thursday asked Mendelblit to retract his decision. If he doesn’t, the movement may petition the High Court of Justice against it.

Mendelblit himself is convinced, according to a source who knows him well, that he’s acting in a balanced, businesslike manner without making any concessions to the man who appointed him cabinet secretary and later voted for his appointment as attorney general. The source says the attorney general’s make up is completely different from that of several prosecution attorneys and police officers.

“He focuses on the main thing. That is, on cracking significant, heavyweight cases. He won’t let the police investigate matters he knows in advance will end with closing the case. He won’t summon Netanyahu for questioning under caution over a box of cigars or a suit he got 10 years ago from some tycoon.”

“If the attorney general receives evidence that the prime minister or any politician received considerable sums of money, he wouldn’t hesitate for a moment to open an investigation and indict the man,” he said.

The attorney general’s real test the inquiry against Netanyahu began a few months ago when two intelligence sources came to the police with alarming tales about the prime minister. Among other things, the sources said Netanyahu’s people allegedly forged the primary for Likud chairman. Netanyahu was also alleged to have set up a shadow staff on the eve of the general elections, which was financed illegally and secretly by wealthy associates. Both stories were refuted by a police probe.

Another story was about a mysterious money route, by which millionaires worldwide allegedly financed the Netanyahu family’s extravagant way of life. Harow, then Netanyahu’s chief of staff, is thought to have played a key role in this story.

At the end of last year police opened an investigation against Harow on suspicion of selling a consulting firm fictitiously for three million dollars, upon becoming chief of staff.

Senior officials in the prosecution and police thought Harow might yield evidence against his former boss and later become a state’s witness. But this hope was dashed. Harow cooperated with the investigation but didn’t cross the line and turn state’s witness. He is expected to be indicted for fraud, among other things.

So far, almost 20 witnesses have testified and investigations were conducted in at least two overseas states in the preliminary inquiry into Netanyahu’s affairs. One significant case is still being looked at. If it leads to solid suspicions, the so-called police “examination,” which has been going on for several months, may turn into a criminal investigation against the prime minister. If not, the entire inquiry will be scrapped.