Analysis |

Why Is Israel's Attorney General Delaying Probe Into Netanyahu?

Soon, Israelis will be able to judge for themselves whether he had the public interest in mind, or that of the prime minister.

Gidi Weitz
Gidi Weitz
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Haaretz Daily Cartoon - October 16, 2016
Haaretz Daily Cartoon - October 16, 2016Credit: Amos Biderman
Gidi Weitz
Gidi Weitz

We will soon find out whether there was any justification for the months-long “examination” ordered by Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit into reporedly explosive information about Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his closest associates, nothing of which has yet been revealed to the public. No previous attorney general has ever spent months “examining” information before either closing the case or ordering a criminal investigation.

Unless someone blocks the necessary next step, the public will soon be able to judge whether this delay was necessary for the collection of evidence, or whether it stemmed from deep reluctance to confront the strongest man in the country on the part of the heads of the country's law enforcement agencies; whether the secrecy surrounding the examination was necessary to avoid alerting potential suspects, or was merely intended to make it possible to stall without paying a public price; whether protecting the man at the top from being labeled a suspect prevented damage to our system of government, or whether Mendeblit was simply serving as Netanyahu’s flak jacket.

Mendelblit was Netanyahu’s cabinet secretary for over two years and was in daily contact with his boss before being appointed attorney general, with Netanyahu’s support. Despite this close association, Mendelblit decided to deal personally with police inquiries that could potentially bring down Netanyahu’s government – and nobody stopped him. In so doing, he took on a task that only someone with a cast-iron spine could handle.

Granted, his biggest test still awaits him. But his behavior to date raises many questions.

For instance, as Haaretz has previously reported, he prevented police from questioning numerous potential witnesses. He also halted one investigation just before the logical next step would have been for police to interrogate Netanyahu, his personal attorney David Shimron and others about the irregular employment of an aide, Odelia Karmon, and about letters suspected of being forged (Shimron and Netanyahu deny this).

Recently, Mendelblit decided there was no need for police to look into possible conflicts of interest on the part of Netanyahu and Shimron in the purchase of submarines from Germany. That decision was based on an opinion by State Prosecutor Shai Nitzan, who has since changed his mind. But Nitzan’s initial position surprised even Netanyahu’s close associates. They expected a police investigation to begin as soon as journalist Raviv Drucker broke the story.

Unlike previous state prosecutors, Nitzan isn’t acting as a serious counterweight to Mendelblit’s lenient treatment of Netanyahu. He was an aide to former State Prosecutor Dorit Beinisch for years, but it’s hard to say he’s following in her footsteps. He seems unwilling to take risks and fight the string-pullers. He presumably wouldn’t have done battle against two prime ministers and the heads of the Shin Bet security service over the shooting of two captured terrorists, as Beinisch did in the mid-1980s.

But Mendelblit bears the primary responsibility. His utter lack of motivation has already infected police investigators charged with the almost impossible task of investigating the various Netanyahu cases. The fraud squad wanted to launch a frontal assault on the as-yet unpublished case this summer. One officer recently told colleagues that, at one point, they actually got approval to do so, but it was swiftly retracted.

Mendelblit would do well to distance himself from any involvement in professional decisions of the police in everything related to investigating Netanyahu.Credit: Gali Tibbon, AP

“For the heads of the prosecution, the Netanyahu cases are a bunch of problems that they’d be glad to be rid of,” one observer said, comparing the imcumbents unfavorably to former Attorney General Menachem Mazuz and former State Prosecutor Moshe Lador.

To justify his foot-dragging, Mendelblit has used shopworn arguments: The attorney general is the responsible adult who’s saving the law enforcement system from headstrong police and prosecutors, who sometimes see molehills as mountains. He’s not willing to let the Netanyahu cases become another Harpaz affair, which lasted for years and targeted several very senior defense officials – including then-military advocate general Mendelblit, who was questioned as a suspect – before ending with the same lone indictment with which it began: forgery charges against Lt. Col. (res.) Boaz Harpaz.

Mendelblit insists he isn’t giving Netanyahu any celebrity discounts. Everything is being looked into and will soon be revealed.

But people who have spoken with him say they doubt he’ll rock the boat unless unshakeable evidence of corruption lands on his desk. The problem is that such evidence never shows up without someone looking for it; Netanyahu isn’t going to volunteer a written confession. An attorney general who’s afraid to take risks or match wits with top politicians will never end governmental corruption. He’ll allow it to flourish, and thereby betray his trust.

Former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s conviction began with a decision to investigate vague but suspicious entries in his office manager’s computerized diaries. The Tax Authority corruption scandal began when a police intelligence officer noticed numerous phone calls between someone familiar from other cases and senior tax officials and decided to look into it. The Holyland corruption case began when the phone of a forger and fraudster was tapped to provide evidence against local and national government officials, in exchange for money and a lighter sentence.

Each of those cases ended in convictions thanks only to healthy suspicion, risk-taking and a mandate for police investigators to dive deeply into the links between money and politics, without interference or emasculating supervision.

Each case could easily have been killed. Senior legal officials could have doubted that the sums listed in Shula Zaken’s diary were suspicious (perhaps they were mortgage payments?), nipped the intelligence officer’s initiative in the bud (you’re opening an undercover investigation over phone calls?) or opposed signing an agreement with someone like Shmuel Dechner to be a state witness.

And, in each of these cases, someone actually did try to interfere. A senior officer in the police’s investigations department tried to block the agreement with Dechner, until Mazuz ordered her to sign it immediately. Another very senior police officer saw Zaken’s diaries, with the names Uri Messer and Morris Talansky listed beside sums of money, and said pessimistically, “They’ll say they bought an apartment together.”

But back then the prosecution was headed by people who understood that even if squelching stories about top politicians is more comfortable than pursuing them, they have a responsibility to serve one interest only: the public interest.

The Netanyahu affair has been on Mendelblit’s desk for months now. It’s hard to understand why, instead of ordering an immediate police investigation, a group of prosecutors headed by Mendelblit decided to sit on this hot potato for such a long time, without even telling the public what it’s all about. At some point, the prosecution’s decision makers will have to provide a convincing explanation.

Soon, when it all comes to light, Mendelblit will have to give an accounting not just of Netanyahu’s actions, but of his own.

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