In 2015, an associate of the prime minister, Nir Hefetz, called me to ask if I would meet with then-Cabinet Secretary Avichai Mendelblit, a candidate for attorney general. It’s impossible that Benjamin Netanyahu didn’t speak with Hefetz about the appointment, even though he claims he didn’t.
On Tuesday this week, for the first time, Netanyahu seemed frightened or shocked when he insisted on telling the public that he was being persecuted. Denying allegations that Netanyahu emissary Hefetz offered Judge Hila Gerstl the attorney general's job if she would drop a case against Netanyahu’s wife Sara, the prime minister also said he hadn’t spoken to Hefetz about the attorney-general appointment.
That can’t be. What follows is my account of a meeting I had with Hefetz and Mendelblit.
One day in 2015, Hefetz called me and suggested that we meet. I thought he was being sent to oust me from the Israel Hayom daily because of my articles critical of the prime minister. I figured the newspaper’s editor, Amos Regev, preferred not to do it himself.
But when we met at the Beta Café in Tel Aviv’s upscale Tzahala neighborhood, I was in for a surprise. Hefetz asked if I would agree to meet with Mendelblit, still a candidate for attorney general. At Hefetz’s request, it was agreed that the meeting would remain confidential, at least until a decision on the new attorney general was made, and that the meeting would take place at my home.
At the appointed time, Hefetz arrived with Mendelblit. The conversation was long and correct, without enticements or threats. I promised that our disagreement over the Harpaz affair – a 2011 scandal involving the selection of the military’s next chief of staff – wouldn’t play a role in this matter. I only objected to Mendelblit’s going directly from cabinet secretary to attorney general, but he argued that, if the need arose, he had the force of personality to file criminal charges against Netanyahu.
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I didn’t know, however, that when Mendelblit said the same thing to the search committee for attorney general headed by retired Supreme Court President Asher Grunis, Netanyahu began frantically looking for another candidate, perhaps including former Justice Ministry director general Guy Rothkopf or even Gerstl, a district court judge.
He didn’t want her? Okay, but in the panic he was in, his behavior took the familiar pattern that it did when he tried to keep Reuven Rivlin from becoming president. Back then he supported Meir Sheetrit and Benjamin Ben-Eliezer, any candidate he could lay his hands on.
Hefetz wouldn’t have strayed in the least from Netanyahu’s line and wouldn’t have made an exception for Gerstl. Netanyahu might argue that he didn’t mean it, in the way he said he didn’t mean it in his conversations with publisher Arnon Mozes in the Yedioth Ahronoth quid-pro-quo case. And maybe he would say he didn’t know, as with all the open cases against him.
Maybe he would say that Eli Kamir, who allegedly offered Gerstl the attorney general’s job on Hefetz’s behalf, didn’t understand what Hefetz had told him. There’s nothing new in that either. But when it comes to the selection of an attorney general, Netanyahu and Hefetz were on the same page. The prime minister may have a satisfactory explanation, but he’ll have to provide it under interrogation as a suspect.
It’s possible that this is an inconsequential matter. Neither Gerstl nor Supreme Court Justice Esther Hayut, whom Gerstl told of the offer, got overly upset about a proposition dripping with criminality. But acting as if the attorney general’s job can be bargained over isn’t foreign to Netanyahu.
All this happened in 2015, but it came about 18 years after the Bar-On- Hebron affair, which involves allegations of a plan to select an attorney general who would offer a plea agreement to the Shas party’s Arye Dery on bribery charges. Netanyahu emerged from that affair with major losses.
It’s possible that the Gerstl affair will fade, because in the frenzy of the investigations against Netanyahu, suddenly the agreement by a director general of the Communications Ministry under Netanyahu, Shlomo Filber, to turn state’s evidence has popped up as a major threat to the prime minister’s political life.
If Filber can do that, something almost comparable to the role Shula Zaken played in a corruption case against Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, anything is possible. The parade of others potentially turning state’s evidence could begin almost anytime. The whiff of an epidemic is spreading among the people occupying adjacent holding cells.