Israel's Outgoing Attorney General Withstood His Main Test

Despite former Prime Minister Netanyahu beliefs that Avichai Mendelblit will offer a lifeline from his ongoing corruption trial, the outgoing attorney general's decision to prosecute Netanyahu will be his legacy

Gidi Weitz
Gidi Weitz
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Outgoing Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit speaks at Tel Aviv University, in June.
Outgoing Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit speaks at Tel Aviv University, in June.Credit: Hadas Parush
Gidi Weitz
Gidi Weitz

An attorney general enters Israel’s collective memory based on a few specific and existential actions taken while in office.

What remains from the short stint of Aharon Barak are the investigation of senior Labor (Mapai) leaders and his determination to bring Yitzhak Rabin to justice over his wife’s dollar bank account. The affair forced Rabin to resign as prime minister and heralded the revolution of 1977 that brought Menachem Begin and the Likud to power.

For Yitzhak Zamir, it was his decision to open the criminal investigation against the leadership of the Shin Bet security service, after it was revealed that its director had ordered the killing of two terrorists captured alive in 1984’s Bus 300 affair and then tried to orchestrate a cover-up. The decision led to Shimon Peres and Yitzhak Shamir showing Zamir the door.

Menachem Mazuz will be remembered for the indictments he filed against a president and prime minister, both of whom were convicted and served time in prison.

The role of prosecutor general may take up only a small part of an attorney general’s time, but the way in which he carries out this function is what determines his image many years after they have left the scene.

Former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu listens to then cabinet secretary Avichai Mendelblit during a cabinet meeting in 2014Credit: אי־פי

In the case of Avichai Mendelblit, the decision to prosecute Benjamin Netanyahu will be his legacy. Very few people, if any, will remember the lenient plea bargains; his dubious relationship with Effi Naveh, who left sensitive recordings in his hands; the snail’s pace with which he made decisions on politicians who went wrong; and the conservatism of his relations with the ruling powers while in office. His decision on the three Netanyahu cases will overshadow all of it. The man who was chosen for the position six years ago, with Netanyahu’s support, today sees the former prime minister as the greatest danger to Israeli democracy since the state was established in 1948.

Only a few weeks after he took office, the recordings documenting the bribery deal between Netanyahu and the publisher of Yedioth Ahronoth, Arnon Mozes, landed on his desk. Then came the evidence of billionaire Arnon Milchan’s gravy train of extravagant gifts for the Netanyahu family. In the first few months of his term, a chill wind blew in Mendelblit’s direction due to suspicions that his previous role as cabinet secretary under Netanyahu was affecting his judgment. Some senior prosecutors worried about a conflict of interest. “If only the investigations and indictment had never been born,” Mendelblit said recently in a private meeting.

Netanyahu, who gathered precise intelligence on the balance of forces inside the Justice Ministry, protected Mendelblit at the time like a valuable piece of jewelry. He believed that the attorney general would rescue him from the law and go into action against secondary targets – Police Commissioner Roni Alsheich and State Prosecutor Shai Nitzan.

But in early 2018, Mendelblit crossed the Rubicon. It happened after he heard the testimony of Ilan Yeshua, the former CEO of the Walla news website, and saw the traffic of poisonous text messages between Yeshua and Shaul Elovitch, who controlled Bezeq and Walla, as well as the regulatory help worth hundreds of millions of shekels that Netanyahu given Bezeq via Shlomo Filber, the director general of the Communications Ministry. For the first time, Mendelblit saw Netanyahu as corrupt.

The revolution in Mendelblit’s thinking led to Netanyahu’s crusade against him. The Rabin family never forgave Aharon Barak for the dollars affair. When the Bus 300 affair blew up in, anonymous phone callers threatened Zamir’s life, and a guard was posted at the entrance to the building where he lived. Tens of thousands demonstrated against Mazuz because of the plea deal he made with Moshe Katsav.

But none of Mendelblit’s predecessors ever fell victim to a systematic, violent and preposterous slander campaign such as the one conducted in recent years by the zealots who support Netanyahu, with senior cabinet ministers in the lead. In their view, the man who was chosen for the job to protect Netanyahu betrayed him. Their need to reorganize reality, to find an explanation for it, gave birth to a nonsensical conspiracy theory about an attorney general who was extorted by the threats of a power hungry state prosecutor who kept recordings in his safe with the goal of ousting Netanyahu, and in doing so guarantee his place on the Supreme Court.

The truth is much more prosaic. Mendelblit underwent a slow change, which may have exacted a heavy price, for example, in the pace with which he handled Netanyahu’s corruption case. But it was authentic. In the end, he filed a historic indictment, one that touches on the very heart of the connections between money and power in Israel: The secret alliance between the media barons and senior politicians. Any junior prosecutor would have brought Case 1000, the extravagant gifts affair, to trial. Recognizing the devastating connection as criminal was Mendelblit’s most important decision.

Even if he hesitated, tarried and acted leniently – first and foremost in his offer to make do with charges of fraud and breach of trust in two of the three cases against Netanyahu – on the most important test of all, Mendelblit passed.

In the last few months of his term, Mendelblit made two decisions that brought severe criticism. He concocted a generous plea deal with Arye Dery, after six long years of investigations. Dery, the chairman of the Shas party, seems to have been the minister Mendelblit respected the most in the Netanyahu governments.

Shas chairman Arye Dery at a party meeting in AugustCredit: Ohad Zwigenberg

“Dery saved huge numbers of people from death,” he said about him in meetings with a Justice Ministry official. He was referring to the scenes he witnessed in the security cabinet where Dery blocked dubious security ventures. Dery was the voice of logic, even when Netanyahu – who usually showed great caution in using military force – took his foot off the brakes, Mendelblit recalled. “He was the most knowledgeable and level-headed minister, and the only that Netanyahu took into account,” Mendelblit told his staff.

When one of them wondered out loud whether there was a connection between the respect he had for Dery and the leniency of the plea deal he reached with him, Mendelblit vigorously denied it. Mendelblit is certain that Dery’s second conviction will prevent him from ever returning to the cabinet and to the meetings of the security cabinet, in which he had such a critical role. In Mendelblit’s view, no attorney general or Supreme Court will ever give it a green light.

Criticism of the Dery plea deal pales in comparison to what Mendelblit suffered when it was revealed that he was secretly discussing a similar agreement with Netanyahu behind the backs of the prosecutors. Mendelblit’s inner circle realized too late that it was a mistake, a case of terrible timing and a warped process.

But as far as Mendelblit was concerned, the deal had one purpose and that was to block Netanyahu from returning to power. Mendelblit is convinced that the trial will end in a resounding conviction and prison time for Netanyahu, but he remains afraid that the present leader of the opposition could soon return to power and fundamentally alter the nature of the Israeli government system with the aim of escaping justice.

It is still possible that a plea deal will happen after Mendelblit has become an ordinary citizen free of any worries or security guards. But whether this is the case, or the trial reaches its end without any shortcuts, the indictment against Netanyahu, Mozes and Elovitch will be the legacy Mendelblit leaves behind.

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