Former state attorney Shai Nitzan responded on Friday to the release of old recordings in which Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit is heard bashing him over his role in a past military scandal, and ensuing attacks from allies of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Nitzan rejected unfounded allegations that he had blackmailed Mandelblit into charging Netanyahu with corruption, repeatedly calling the accusations “baseless” and “unrealistic,” in interviews with channels 12 and 13 in his first public appearances since the release of the recordings.
In the recordings, which date to 2015 and 2016, Mandelblit calls Nitzan a “jerk” for failing to clear him of wrongdoing in the 2010 Harpaz affair. The conversations took place between Mandelblit, who was then cabinet secretary, and the head of the Israel Bar Association at the time, Efi Nave.
In the Harpaz affair, Mandelblit, who at the time was military advocate general, the army’s top legal officer, was briefly suspected of having helped military brass cover up a smear campaign.
The recordings caused an uproar in Netanyahu’s Likud party, with lawmakers claiming it proved Nitzan had Mandelblit by the throat, and asserting he had forced the attorney general to indict Netanyahu in his three criminal cases — a claim Mandelblit vociferously rejected.
In the Friday interview with Channel 12, which released the tapes on Tuesday, Nitzan said the claims against him were absurd and unfounded.
He said that himself, Mandelblit and former Israel Police commissioner Roni Alsheich had long been in the public eye before the charges against Netanyahu. Mandelblit indicted the premier on corruption charges earlier this year, and Nitzan was another key figure in the case. As Israel’s top cop, Alsheich oversaw the police investigations into Netanyahu.
All three have been targets of the premier and his allies as they try to discredit the charges against Netanyahu, and all were appointed to the posts under Netanyahu’s watch as prime minister.
“These unfounded theories, that we’re all extreme leftists, it’s not like I just landed here from outer space,” Nitzan said.
“Everyone knows where Mandelblit comes from. All of a sudden, we all became radical leftists? Roni Alsheich, who lived in [West Bank settlements] for part of his life? Mandelblit, who wears a black kippah? Me, who graduated from a yeshiva? We’re all radical leftists? And we all got together to take down Prime Minister Netanyahu? It is all so baseless. It’s simply unbelievable that anyone believes this nonsense,” Nitzan said.
In further evidence of their innocence, Nitzan highlighted Mandelblit’s announcement on Thursday that he won’t order a formal investigation into Netanyahu over his stock dealings or re-open the so-called submarine affair that embroiled some of the premier’s associates to look into Netanyahu himself.
“This is more proof that the theory that says, ‘If it’s Bibi, they’re investigating, and if it’s not, they’re not,’ is baseless,” Nitzan said, referring to Netanyahu by his nickname.
“It only proves that we work according to the evidence. What Mandelblit is going through now, happened to me for a long time while the case against Netanyahu was with the police. It’s a strange situation. We are public servants who are doing our job. No one can prove there are other considerations here,” Nitzan said.
Without directly mentioning Netanyahu or his Likud allies, he said, “People, who are leaders of the public, are peddling conspiracy theories.”
Nitzan dismissed the calls between Mandelblit and Nave as a private conversation between close friends that did not indicate any interference in their professional lives or work.
The newly aired recordings, while highlighting a beef between Mandelblit and Nitzan years before the Netanyahu investigations began, do not provide evidence for any blackmail.
In the Harpaz affair, Mandelblit was briefly suspected of having helped military brass cover up a smear campaign.
He was questioned under caution in June 2014, when he was already out of uniform and serving as Netanyahu’s cabinet secretary, and later cleared by the High Court of Justice over his involvement in the affair and found to have “done no wrong.”
However, it was up to Nitzan and law enforcement to declare whether the case was closed due to lack of evidence, or the absence of a basis for an accusation.
For Mandelblit, a conclusion of lack of evidence could have scuppered his hopes of being appointed attorney general. Mandelbit was eventually appointed attorney general and took office in February 2016, despite the Harpaz case against him not being formally closed.
The open case against Mandelblit has been used as ammunition against him by associates of Netanyahu who have sought to discredit the state prosecution as it proceeds with corruption charges against the premier.
“Do you understand that that jerk isn’t making a decision on my case?” Mandelblit can be heard telling Nave in the recordings, referring to Nitzan. “I don’t know what to do with him.”
“He’s doing it to me on purpose. I don’t know what to do,” Mandelblit says. “It’s possible he wants to have me by the throat. I don’t know what he’s thinking. In the end I’ll lose it and make a big stink over this.”
Mandelblit on Thursday apologized to Nitzan for the recordings.
“Following the publication of the recordings, I spoke with Shai Nitzan and clarified the matter. Shai accepted this and we straightened things out,” he said. “The publication was used by interested parties in a foolish attempt to fuel a baseless conspiracy bonfire.”
Likud lawmakers, including Knesset Speaker Yariv Levin and Public Security Minister Amir Ohana, tore into Mandelblit following the report.
Coalition whip Miki Zohar threatened that if Mandelblit did not resign and withdraw his indictment of Netanyahu, more damaging recordings could soon be published. Zohar later walked back the warning, saying he had been misunderstood.
Mandelblit’s office in a statement referred to the recordings as “a private conversation between close friends from over five years ago.”
“There is no connection between these things and the professional decisions made by the attorney general in investigation cases. The decisions were made in an orderly and professional process, solely according to the evidence and the law,” the statement said. “Working relations between Mandelblit and the former state attorney, Shai Nitzan, were excellent, and the two worked in full cooperation.”
In July, a state prosecution ombudsman criticized Nitzan for his failure to clear Mandelblit in the Harpaz case, saying police and prosecutors had displayed “improper conduct” in their failure to declare that the case was closed due to an absence of guilt.
Justice David Rozen said Nitzan had not acted with the required transparency in the case, despite Mandelblit’s request to officially mark the reason for the closing of the probe into the affair a decade ago.
Nave and Mandelbit were close acquaintances, and the attorney general recused himself from dealing with Nave’s own criminal cases in which he is suspected of advocating for judicial appointments in return for sex.
A report last month claimed the Nitzan covered up possible police misconduct to avoid giving ammunition to allies of the premier, who have sought to portray the criminal cases against him as a “witch hunt.”
Channel 12 said the recordings released Tuesday were obtained via legal means and were created with an application on Nave’s phone that automatically records conversations.
Mandelblit in January indicted Netanyahu with bribery, fraud and breach of trust charges for which the prime minister is currently on trial. Netanyahu denies any wrongdoing and he and his supporters allege a conspiracy by law enforcement and the media seeking to force him from power.
Israel has been without a permanent state attorney since December 2019, with the end of the term Nitzan’s term. Since Alsheich’s term ended in December 2018 the police have been without a permanent chief due to repeated elections and coalition disagreements preventing a proper appointment.