Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Justice Minister Amir Ohana on Tuesday demanded the publication of decade-old transcripts of phone calls between Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit and Blue and White lawmaker Gabi Ashkenazi amid claims by some right-wing pundits that the corruption indictments against the prime minister are part of an anti-Netanyahu conspiracy between the two men.
The calls in question took place in August 2010, when Ashkenazi was chief of staff of the Israel Defense Forces and Mandelblit the army’s top legal officer.
They were investigated by police as part of the “Harpaz affair” that roiled the army’s top echelons that year.
The Harpaz affair began in April 2010 when a shadowy former IDF intelligence officer named Boaz Harpaz, then serving as a private-sector defense adviser known to be close to then-IDF chief Ashkenazi, produced a fake document purporting to be a public relations strategy for then-Southern Command chief Yoav Gallant’s campaign to become the next chief of staff. Gallant is today a prominent lawmaker for Likud.
The document recommended a smear campaign against Gallant’s rivals, including then-deputy chief of staff Benny Gantz, who would go on to be appointed Israel’s 20th chief of staff in 2011 and is today Netanyahu’s chief rival for the premiership in the upcoming general election on March 2.
The document was soon revealed as a fake intended to smear Gallant himself, and suspicion fell on Ashkenazi. A criminal investigation was launched into Harpaz’s actions in 2011. He was arrested in March 2014 and, after a complex investigation and trial that ended in a November 2018 plea deal, was sentenced in May 2019 to 220 community service hours.
While the story is not new, Channel 13 published purportedly “new” transcripts of those calls on Sunday that were already published by Israeli media in 2014.
Channel 13’s timing — just two weeks before election day, and as Netanyahu faces a corruption trial on charges brought by Mandelblit — raised concerns the issue has been revived for the benefit of the Likud campaign, in a bid to cast doubt on the attorney general’s integrity and dampen the political fallout from Netanyahu’s looming corruption trial, which is set to begin on March 17.
On Monday, the pro-Netanyahu daily Israel Hayom prominently featured an opinion column alleging that Netanyahu’s corruption troubles were the result of an alleged “conspiracy” between Mandelblit and Ashkenazi, who have allegedly been secretly allied since the Harpaz affair in 2010.
Writing in the paper on Monday, columnist Amnon Lord called the 2010 case “the start of the road for Ashkenazi, Gantz and Mandelblit — to take out not only Gallant, but also Netanyahu.” He suggested the alleged alliance amounted to a soft military coup, echoing Netanyahu’s claims that the investigations into his affairs were an “attempted coup” by police and prosecutors.
“That is, since 2010 we have a defense elite that doesn’t accept the rule of the political echelon,” claimed Lord.
Before Netanyahu’s corruption cases were launched, Mandelblit was considered a close confidant of the prime minister, who appointed him cabinet secretary in 2013 and attorney general in 2016.
In an interview Tuesday with Channel 13, Netanyahu demanded that all remaining unpublished transcripts, placed under gag order at the time, be released.
“Ashkenazi needs to explain to the public what he did. What do they have to hide?” Netanyahu demanded.
“If they have nothing [to hide], it would help if they agreed to release the materials before the elections. [Ashkenazi] wants to lead the country!”
Justice Minister Amir Ohana, a Netanyahu ally, also called for their release, saying in a statement Tuesday that all recordings from the “Ashkenazi-Mandelblit investigations” must be made public.
“The public must know before the election, in order to allow for a transparent and open public debate, all the facts about the nature of the connection between Ashkenazi and Mandelblit, and whether it affected their decisions,” he said, in an apparent reference to Mandelblit’s decision to indict Netanyahu for corruption.
In September 2014, police recommended charging Mandelblit, along with Harpaz, former IDF spokesman Avi Benayahu and former Ashkenazi aide Erez Viner, with obstruction and breach of trust for allegedly failing to report everything they knew in a timely fashion. But in May 2015, then-attorney general Yehudah Weinstein decided to close the case against Mandelblit. A later ruling by the High Court of Justice concluded Mandelblit had “done no wrong.”