A few months after Likud’s surprisingly wide victory in the 2015 election, the cabinet secretary at the time, Avichai Mendelblit, was appointed attorney general. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who didn’t spare his praise for the appointee, had another reason to believe he had made the right choice. The publisher of the daily Yedioth Ahronoth, Arnon Mozes, “is against” Mendelblit, Netanyahu said behind closed doors at the time. “He doesn’t want him in the job.”
Mozes was Netanyahu’s antagonist during that election campaign, after the secret negotiations the two held hit a dead end. Those talks have led to one of the corruption indictments against Netanyahu; the two are suspected of planning to swap positive coverage of Netanyahu for a regulatory move that would sting a Yedioth competitor.
For Netanyahu, the world was divided into two kinds of people: those who were on Mozes’ side and those who weren’t. But now, five years later, Mendelblit is filling this demonic role in Netanyahu’s mind.
In recent months – especially over the past few weeks – Netanyahu has ordered deputies to try to obtain the full transcripts of the Harpaz affair, sources told Haaretz. Mendelblit played a role in that case when he was military advocate general around a decade ago. The Harpaz affair concerned attempts to improperly sway the process for selecting the military chief of staff to succeed Gabi Ashkenazi in 2011.
“A real obsession,” said someone familiar with the attempts by Netanyahu and his people to revisit Mendelblit’s possible role in the Harpaz affair.
The idea is to bring the materials – most of which are sealed under a gag order – to light to delegitimize the corruption indictments against Netanyahu and undermine Mendelblit. Netanyahu’s trial is due to begin on March 17.
After Monday’s general election, Mendelblit is expected to decide on a number of issues critical to Netanyahu, who seems to have realized that the Harpaz affair was a traumatic chapter for Mendelblit. Thus any attention to it will wear Mendelblit down.
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Mendelblit ended his stint as military advocate general in 2011. Between April 2013 and February 2016, he was cabinet secretary for Netanyahu; he then became attorney general.
When Bibi backed up Mendelblit
Ironically, five years ago, it was Netanyahu who defended Mendelblit when the Justice Ministry tried to block Mendelblit’s appointment as attorney general. In 2015, Netanyahu met with the previous attorney general, Yehuda Weinstein, who placed the proverbial bomb on the table: a detailed document that summed up the “implications of the investigation into Mendelblit” in the Harpaz affair.
This was an extraordinary step because only a few weeks earlier Weinstein had closed the case against Mendelblit. In the detailed document, Weinstein noted alleged contradictions between what Mendelblit told the police and what he told the State Comptroller’s Office. Weinstein warned that Mendelblit’s role in the affair could cast an “ethical stain” on him.
Mendelblit was furious with Weinstein, whom he accused of trying to end his career. In a letter, he noted alleged absurdities in Weinstein’s document. The stain against him would mean “destruction and ruin,” Mendelblit wrote. And this week he reiterated that the Supreme Court did not find any fault in his actions.
“Read what’s written here,” Weinstein reportedly told Netanyahu. “If you find that he’s not worthy of being cabinet secretary, summon him for a hearing and he’ll be allowed to receive the investigative materials.” Netanyahu reportedly responded: “I’m not summoning him to any hearing. Summon him yourself.”
According to a source, Weinstein later described the events in a private conversation: “Netanyahu listened to me, demonstratively pushed the papers into a drawer and hasn’t touched them since.”
A person who once worked alongside Netanyahu said this week: “The prime minister didn’t blink. He saw Mendelblit as the leading candidate for the position of attorney general.”
This could partially explain any feelings of betrayal felt by Netanyahu today. In any case, the interest Netanyahu is now showing to the stale Harpaz affair is an urgent interest; he knows he can expect many more battles with Mendelblit.
Mendelblit's to-do list
The main battle concerns the decision Mendelblit has avoided: whether the president can ask an indicted prime minister to form a government. Mendelblit will also be forced to decide whether to deeply investigate another affair: A filing by the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission suggested that Netanyahu bought shares in a company owned by his cousin at a 95 percent discount.
This affair broke after Netanyahu made a request to receive donations from wealthy friends to help pay for his criminal defense. A decision by Mendelblit on whether to investigate has been waiting for months.
The events of last month peaked with the appointment of Dan Eldad as acting state prosecutor, a move by Justice Minister Amir Ohana that was not coordinated with Mendelblit as it should have been. Sources say Mendelblit’s instincts were to “conduct an all-out war” against Ohana, but he felt that the legal community and media were not giving him their support, so he surrendered.
In a conversation with a senior lawyer, Mendelblit reportedly called this surrender “the hardest decision I’ve made during my term, more than the decision to file an indictment against Netanyahu.” In that conversation, he reportedly described Eldad as a tool in Netanyahu’s hands in the prime minister’s war against the law enforcement system.
On February 20, Eldad ordered the police to launch a criminal investigation into Fifth Dimension, the company chaired by Benny Gantz – Netanyahu’s main rival Monday – before it went out of business. That Thursday, Mendelblit was on vacation abroad. He was furious with Eldad, but this week – in an act seen by the State Prosecutor’s Office as a show of weakness – he declared that Eldad’s decision was not politically motivated.
The motive for this, too, appears to be the coming election. Mendelblit may fear that Eldad will plant more land mines in his path, so he wants to mollify him until the election results are in. Then, Mendelblit hopes, with the help of a new government and a new justice minister, he will make Eldad pay him back.
Before the election last April, when it appeared Netanyahu would be able to form a new government after the vote, Mendelblit reportedly shared an apocalyptic forecast with a friend about Netanyahu’s plans. Mendelblit predicted that Netanyahu would request and receive immunity from prosecution, pass a law enabling the Knesset to override Supreme Court decisions, run for president in 2021 and thus once against receive immunity from prosecution. This plan collapsed when Yisrael Beiteinu leader Avigdor Lieberman played kingmaker and prevented Netanyahu from forming a coalition.
In 2020, the chances of this plan succeeding look low, but Mendelblit’s associates say they assume that if Netanyahu can put together a right-wing governing coalition, he will try to oust Mendelblit and promote legislation to block the criminal proceedings against him.
If this time, too, the election doesn't produce a clear outcome and the country is dragged into a fourth election, Mendelblit will once again find himself in a confrontation with Netanyahu, Ohana and Eldad. The cabinet will ignore him, as it has already done in its unanimous decision to establish an inquiry committee into the Justice Ministry unit that investigates police misconduct and to bring members of the Falashmura community in Ethiopia to Israel.
A spokesman for Netanyahu said: “The sections from the recordings of Ashkenazi and Mendelblit from the Harpaz affair that were published in the media raise serious questions about the nature of the relationship between them and the attorney general’s decision later on. The only way to verify that Mendelblit did not act out of extraneous motives in the prime minister’s cases is to lift the gag orders on the recordings and expose to the public the content of the conversations. This is the proper and only request of Prime Minister Netanyahu.”