Will Netanyahu Be Indicted? In Israel, the Pressure’s on This Man to Decide
When Avichai Mandelblit was being considered for the post of Israeli attorney general, the selection committee had a question: If there was enough evidence, would he prosecute the man who was then his boss, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu?
Mr. Mandelblit did not hesitate, according to a person involved in the vetting process.
Yes, he said.
Now that answer is about to be tested.
Mr. Mandelblit, a soft-spoken jurist, is expected to announce as early as Thursday whether he intends to indict the prime minister in any of three separate corruption cases. His decisions, coming amid an election campaign in which Mr. Netanyahu is seeking a fourth consecutive term, are bound to anger the prime minister’s supporters, his opponents, or both.
“Everybody in Israel knows today that Mandelblit will be accused by 50 percent of the population no matter what he decides,” said Yedidia Z. Stern, a law professor and senior fellow at the Israel Democracy Institute. “There is no way he can go out in the rain and not get wet.”
But the fact that there is nothing Mr. Mandelblit could do to make everyone happy may finally be liberating. “So he’ll get wet,” Mr. Stern said. “Now he can go out in the rain.”
The possible charges against Mr. Netanyahu are bribery, fraud and breach of trust. But neither side was waiting for a decision to start assailing the attorney general.
Mr. Netanyahu and his conservative allies have accused Mr. Mandelblit of caving in to pressure from the left and the liberal media, and racing toward an indictment before the April 9 election.
“One of the most fateful decisions in the country’s history, a decision that could bring the left to power, is being taken hastily and with record speed,” Mr. Netanyahu, who denies all wrongdoing, said this month.
Mr. Netanyahu’s critics on the left have accused Mr. Mandelblit of foot-dragging, questioning whether he has the stomach to turn on his former boss. Before he was Mr. Netanyahu’s choice for attorney general, Mr. Mandelblit served for three years as Mr. Netanyahu’s cabinet secretary, a position of deep trust.
Given that intimate relationship, argued Eldad Yaniv, a leftist lawyer and activist, Mr. Mandelblit is better suited to be “an essential witness for the police investigation,” not the prosecutor.
In the parlor game that has captivated Israel in recent weeks, some on the right, though, fear that Mr. Mandelblit could take a tough line against his one-time patron to prove his independence, burnishing his credentials for what they suspect is his ambition to serve on the Supreme Court.
The attacks on Mr. Mandelblit have been intense and personal.
His father’s gravestone was desecrated.
Left-wing protesters heckled him at the supermarket and on his way to synagogue.
And good-government activists brought a conflict-of-interest case against him, because as the government’s top lawyer, he continued to hold one-on-one meetings with his main client, Mr. Netanyahu, while simultaneously investigating him as a criminal suspect.
Judges rejected the petition, saying the presumption was that Mr. Mandelblit could maintain a “Chinese Wall.”
The attorney general has said little publicly, either to respond to the criticism or comment on the cases. The Justice Ministry declined a request for an interview with him for this article.
In a brief interview with Israeli television, Mr. Mandelblit said his main responsibility was to protect the institution of the attorney general’s office. “I didn’t invent it, it was here for 70 years before,” he said, “and it will continue to exist for decades to come.”
A senior justice ministry official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the political sensitivity of the matter, said that Mr. Mandelblit was “not sitting in a dark room by himself,” and was consulting with a group of 20 to 30 experts.
But in the end, he said, the decision was Mr. Mandelblit’s alone.
The Israeli justice system has a record of independence, having convicted a former president, Moshe Katsav, of rape, and a former prime minister, Ehud Olmert, of bribery.
“We’ve prosecuted chief rabbis and mayors,” the official said. “There’s no doubt in my mind that Mandelblit will make the decision he thinks is the right decision. And I don’t envy him at all.”
In response to criticism from Mr. Netanyahu that announcing preliminary charges before the election could sway the vote without sufficient time for Mr. Netanyahu to plead his case in a formal hearing, Mr. Mandelblit’s office cited the principle of equality before the law and argued that the public had a right to know.
In a letter this month, the attorney general’s office also noted that it was Mr. Netanyahu’s government that moved the election, originally scheduled for November, forward by seven months. The early election, it said, “did not accelerate the work nor slow it down.”
Mr. Mandelblit’s life has been an endless balancing act. Friends and colleagues describe him as modest yet tenacious, with an mix of shyness and ambition, inscrutability, correctitude and warmth.
His father, Baruch, fought with the right-wing, pre-state militia and went on to become active in the Herut Party, a precursor to Mr. Netanyahu’s Likud. His mother, a friend said, came from the other side of the political map. Mr. Mandelblit grew up in a secular home in Tel Aviv but in his 20s became strictly Orthodox.
People close to him say that he never had political ambitions and that he did not befriend the Netanyahus. They maintain that they have no idea what his politics are.
When Mr. Mandelblit served as military advocate general, the army’s chief legal adviser and prosecutor, he welcomed complaints from human rights organizations critical of the military’s conduct toward Palestinians, saying they helped him do his job. He also approved contentious actions like the surprise bombing of a police academy in Gaza in late 2008 that killed dozens of police officers at the opening of a three-week war.
Mr. Netanyahu tapped Mr. Mandelblit as his cabinet secretary after being impressed by his defense of Israel against allegations of war crimes during the 2008-2009 Gaza war.
Mr. Netanyahu also needed an international law expert like Mr. Mandelblit to find creative ways to retroactively legalize settler outposts built without authorization on private Palestinian lands in the West Bank. Mr. Mandelblit suggested offering the Palestinian owners compensation or land swaps.
Mr. Mandelblit also led negotiations to resolve a dispute over the Western Wall in Jerusalem between Orthodox traditionalists who controlled the holy site and adherents of more progressive streams of Judaism who wanted a more egalitarian prayer space there. “He saw it as a religious calling,” said Anat Hoffman, a founder of the pluralistic, feminist Women of the Wall group.
After three years of talks, a deal was struck to upgrade a space where men and women could worship together.
When Mr. Netanyahu backtracked on the deal the following year, Mr. Mandelblit kept any frustration to himself.
Since beginning his six-year term in early 2016, Mr. Mandelblit has openly clashed with the government over bills he viewed as anti-democratic and unconstitutional.
When he believed the government had gone too far passing a law authorizing Jewish settlement built on private Palestinian land, he took the unusual step of refusing to defend it against challenges in the Supreme Court.
In September 2017, Mr. Mandelblit announced his intention to bring fraud charges against Sara Netanyahu, the prime minister’s wife, accusing her of misusing some $ 100,000 in public funds in her management of the official residence.
With that decision, said Mr. Stern, the law professor, Mr. Mandelblit “crossed the Rubicon.”