The Curious Criminal Investigations of Israeli Politicians

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

An attorney general is frequently tested by how he handles investigations of public figures. At least three such probes are on Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit’s desk right now.

The investigation into Zionist Union leader Isaac Herzog, as far as is known, focuses on a single donation of 40,000 shekels (about $10,500) to help fund his Labor Party primary campaign against Shelly Yacimovich. This is a simple probe, which was opened a year ago and whose existence is known. Still, Mendelblit has yet to say whether he believes there’s a case here or not.

The attorney general began, as usual, with an “examination,” which quickly became an “investigation.” Why? There didn’t seem to have been any dramatic development; perhaps it was because the examination got publicity. Herzog was last questioned as a possible suspect two months ago and since then nothing has happened. According to leaked information, the case is about to be closed, but the Attorney General’s Office is mum.

One can’t ignore the question marks regarding Minister Arye Dery’s case, either. The covert examination of the Negev and Galilee development minister’s affairs began when the police got information about suspicious money transfers from James Schlaff, brother of Austrian tycoon Martin Schlaff, to Dery’s brother, attorney Shlomo Dery. The Schlaff-Dery connection lit up all the police’s warning lights, which is logical.

But here, too, we go back to Mendelblit’s behavior. Very quickly he announced he was moving from an examination to an investigation. Why? Perhaps it was to allow some type of police action, or perhaps it was simply because the probe was revealed. Dery has yet to be questioned and the issue is hanging over his head. According to leaked information, there is no case, but the Attorney General’s Office is mum.

The deplorable “examination,” a term only used for public figures, is not Mendelblit’s invention, but petitions to the High Court of Justice by MK Miki Rosenthal gave the attorney general an opportunity to do away with it. He did not exploit this opportunity. When it comes to the “examination” of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s affairs, the distortion only becomes clearer.

I remembered how the criminal investigation into the nonprofit associations affiliated with Ehud Barak began. In January 2000 State Comptroller Eliezer Goldberg issued a report alleging that Barak’s associates had channeled illegal contributions to a host of nonprofits. Goldberg sent the report to then-Attorney General Elyakim Rubinstein, who is not known as a quick decision-maker. Yet even as Barak was polishing his speech in response to the report, his bureau was informed that the attorney general had ordered the opening of a criminal investigation. No “examination” required. How curiously simple.

The suspicions against Netanyahu are enough for police to have grilled one of his most prominent fundraisers, Ari Harow, for more than 20 hours, much of that time as a possible suspect. But apparently this is still not enough to move from an examination to an investigation. Why was there enough to move Herzog and Dery from examination to investigation, but not Netanyahu?

When Mendelblit’s candidacy for attorney general came up, I thought it was a bad idea. It’s not that he’s lacking the skills or the integrity –  the personal relationships are the story. Mendelblit had been on excellent terms with Herzog, Dery and Netanyahu, and he helped Dery when good-government groups petitioned the High Court against his being appointed a minister at all, and interior minister in particular. Netanyahu appointed him to the post. It’s no surprise that the subjects of these examinations feel free to call him about the examinations against them.

Last week Mendelblit came to the Knesset and admitted that it was complicated to be sitting with Netanyahu on the government’s ongoing work one minute, and the next on the investigations against him. Harow was also friendly with Mendelblit. Would Mendelblit have made the same decisions about his questioning if he hadn’t known him? Would the politicians under investigation dared to have called Menachem Mazuz, now a Supreme Court justice, when he was attorney general?

It could be that the decisions Mendelblit makes in these cases will all be reasonable. Still, it will be hard to convince the public that the same decisions would have been taken if he hadn’t been these people’s friend.

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