Days Before Netanyahu's Trial, Likud Minister Says Israel's Attorney General Is 'Alleged Criminal'

Justice minister fires back, dubbing remarks 'unrestrained attack,' amid growing tension between Netanyahu backers and Attorney General Mendelbit, who filed the corruption indictments against him

Netael Bandel
Netael Bandel
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Minister David Amsalem (Likud), responsible for liaison between the cabinet and the Knesset, in a government meeting in Jerusalem, October 2019.
Minister David Amsalem (Likud), responsible for liaison between the cabinet and the Knesset, in a government meeting in Jerusalem, October 2019. Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg
Netael Bandel
Netael Bandel

A minister from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud party said Thursday that there is no doubt that Israel’s attorney general is “an alleged criminal," adding to growing attacks by Netanyahu supporters against Avichai Mendelblit ahead of the premier's corruption trial, which is set to open on Sunday.

In an interview with Army Radio, Minister David Amsalem, responsible for the liaison between the cabinet and the Knesset, said that “There’s no disagreement in Israel that Avichai Mendelblit is ostensibly a criminal.” Amsalem’s remarks referred to Mendelblit’s alleged involvement in the so-called Harpaz affair nearly a decade ago.

Bibi swears in his colossal coalition and readies for a courtroom showdown Credit: Haaretz

Netanyahu reportedly ordered his deputies to try to obtain the full transcripts of the Harpaz affair – a complicated scandal that began when Mendelblit served as military advocate general in the Israeli army 10 years ago.

Responding to Amsalem’s comments, newly-appointed Justice Minister Avi Nissenkorn of Benny Gantz's Kahol Lavan party said: “I have complete faith in the attorney general. Cabinet ministers are entitled to express relevant criticism, but unrestrained attacks are crossing a red line.”

Amsalem added that “there are recordings, we don’t need interpretation, we don’t need Supreme Court justices, or the entire left-wing chorus and its commentators and professors from all the faculties and the entire legal world.” He also said that Netanyahu erred in appointing Mendelblit as attorney general in 2016. “There is no disagreement that Mendelblit obstructed justice. He obstructed it as an investigator, which is the worst kind of obstruction.”

Asked about Netanyahu’s trial in three criminal cases, Amsalem said that he assumes that “Netanyahu will show up in court. He is a law-abiding citizen and if this is what the court decided, he’ll comply.”

Last week, Mendelblit filed a police complaint after receiving threats on his personal phone, which were linked to Likud activists. The texts sent to Mendelblit included calls for him to commit suicide, as well as threats such as "You're vulnerable," and "We'll get to you."

Haaretz reported on Wednesday that the Justice Ministry has decided to assign a security detail to Deputy State Prosecutor Liat Ben Ari, the chief prosecutor in Netanyahu’s trial, following a recommendation from Israel Police.

Also on Wednesday, the Jerusalem District Court rejected a request by Netanyahu to be absent during the first session of his trial. The three-judge panel ruled that the reasoning behind Netanyahu's request did not justify such a deviation from the norm, which requires the presence of the accused at the opening of his or her trial.

In January, Mendelblit indicted Netanyahu for bribery, fraud, and breach of trust in three cases.

The so-called Case 1000 involves lavish gifts that the prime minister allegedly received. Case 2000 alleges legislation in exchange for favorable news coverage from the newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth. Case 4000 involves allegations of beneficial regulatory treatment for the Bezeq telecommunications firm in exchange for favorable news coverage from Bezeq’s Walla news website.

In February, Haaretz’s Gidi Weitz reported on initial efforts by Netanyahu loyalists to dig up dirt on Mendelblit by obtaining the recordings from the Harpaz affair, allegedly incriminating the attorney general and Foreign Affair Minister Gabi Gabi Ashkenazi [who was chief of staff at the time] of improper conduct.

In early May, then-Justice Minister Amir Ohana asked the State Comptroller Matanyahu Englman to launch an inquiry into the State Prosecutor’s Office and Mendelblit because of what he described as the undermining of the public’s trust in them. Ohana presented Englman with a number of issues, including the attorney general’s role in the Harpaz affair. Another issue was leaks to the media that Ohana said came from the Justice Ministry.

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