Police on Tuesday recommended to Attorney-General Yehuda Weinstein that he indict former IDF chief of staff Lt.-Gen. (res.) Gabi Ashkenazi, the prime minister’s cabinet secretary Avichai Mandelblit, former IDF chief spokesman Brig.-Gen. (res.) Avi Benayahu and three other former senior army officers.
Those additional officers are Ashkenazi’s former chief-ofstaff Col. (res.) Erez Viner, former Golani Reconnaissance Battalion commander Col. (res.) Gabi Siboni and Lt.-Col. (res.) Boaz Harpaz.
The list of suspects, which made up a large portion of the state security establishment’s high command only a few years ago, is unprecedented.
Despite the police recommendations, State Attorney Shai Nitzan, and his superior Weinstein, ultimately will decide whether any or all of the potential defendants are indicted.
All of the charges relate to the Harpaz Affair, an alleged 2010 plot by Harpaz to illegally undermine then-defense minister Ehud Barak’s choice to succeed Ashkenazi as IDF chief of staff, as part of a more general battle between Barak and Ashkenazi involving both sides allegedly spying and spreading misinformation about the other.
Regarding the central allegation that Barak had brandished against Ashkenazi and the other former IDF officials, the police rejected any charge of a “putsch” to overthrow him.
The police also rejected all allegations that Ashkenazi or the others had any connection to Harpaz’s forging of the document, which started the entire investigation, even adding that the investigation lent further support to their claims of non-involvement and their belief that the document was not a forgery.
Furthermore, the police rejected any allegations that Ashkenazi’s or the others’ alleged spying or trying to undermine Barak rose to the level of criminality, while criticizing their actions generally as ethically problematic.
Still, the police recommended charging Ashkenazi with somewhat more minor and borderline offenses, including two separate counts for breach of public trust and illegally revealing classified material.
The first count of breach of trust is for Ashkenazi delaying by around 48 hours the turning over his copy of the Harpaz document to police, though he did eventually voluntarily reveal he had it and turned it over.
The second count of breach of trust is connected to the allegations that Ashkenazi illegally revealed top secret information to certain reporters in “background” conversations. Responding, Ashkenazi emphasized that the police cleared him of the central allegations of having planned a “putsch” and of having tried to sabotage the originally intended appointment of Maj.-Gen. (res.) Yoav Gallant to succeed him as IDF chief.
He continued to point out that the information given in background conversations to certain reporters was not leaked and published, and that characterizing this as illegal showed a failure to understand the job of the IDF chief of staff, since such discussions fulfill important security interests.
All prior IDF chiefs have conducted themselves similarly on certain issues with the press, Ashkenazi added.
The former IDF head explained that the 48-hour delay in handing over the document resulted from his being extremely busy, preparing for major testimony before a state commission investigating the events of the May 2010 Mavi Marmara Gaza protest flotilla.
He slammed the police for failing to explore all relevant evidence in the case, which he said would have led to allegations against Barak and his aides of abusing their power, spying on Ashkenazi and destroying large amounts of tapes that would have been evidence.
Until the Harpaz Affair, Ashkenazi was rumored as a future contender for prime minister, being highly popular for having rebuilt the IDF after the Second Lebanon War (2006), where many thought the IDF underperformed.
Mandelblit, who is also a former IDF legal division head, is accused of breach of trust and obstruction of justice because he delayed reporting to police that Ashkenazi was holding a copy of the Harpaz document, and because he delayed directing him to provide the document to police, though he did eventually told him to do so.
One immediate sign that Mandelblit may have some unique defenses among the suspects is that the Military Advocate-General’s Office will be representing him.
Not only does this save Mandelblit the cost of his legal defense, but it signals that at least the public defender believes that he was acting within the boundaries of his official role as head of the IDF legal division.
Mandelblit’s defense team, chief military defense attorney Col. Asher Halperin, Maj. (res.) Jacque Chen and Maj.
(res.) Eyal Cohen, responded to the police decision, stating that Mandelblit “provided in his interrogation full and detailed answers that clarified unambiguously that all of his actions” while serving as IDF legal division head during the period in question were “proper and correct.”
They said the police recommendation was “without basis” and accused the police of “grave leaks,” intended to smear his name in the press, and which were severely harming the purity of the legal proceedings against him.
Mandelblit’s statement explained that only hours passed between when he learned of the document and received it from Ashkenazi, and only some more hours passed before he told Ashkenazi to turn over the document despite being somewhat immobilized in shock at its contents.
He added that the police had ignored his role serving as Ashkenazi’s lawyer and protecting his secrecy, as well as his directing Ashkenazi to turn over the document.
The former top IDF legal official noted that even the state comptroller’s report on the issue had found Mandelblit’s conduct regarding the document proper, and that he expected Weinstein to clear his name.
Mandelblit seemed undaunted by calls for his suspension while attending a conference on international law and war following the police announcement.
Benayahu is suspected of breach of trust, obstructing justice and destroying evidence to circumvent a Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) investigation ordered by Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu following an incident of leaked classified information in 2010.
He is also suspected of illegally leaking information to a reporter and separately of negligently maintaining classified information at his residence and on his home computer without any legal justification, including after he retired from the IDF.
The former IDF spokesman responded that any normal person would notice the “inconceivable gap between the grave allegations and published accusations” initially leaked by the police, and the much narrower allegations the police ultimately recommended.
He said he was convinced the state would dismiss all of the allegations against him.
Viner is suspected of obstructing justice by coordinating his story to investigators with Siboni, also suspected of obstructing justice, by ordering his staff to erase a meeting entry from Ashkenazi’s journal and by working with Benayahu on destroying evidence in response to the Shin Bet leak investigation.
The police also recommended indicting Viner for negligently maintaining classified information at his residence and on his home computer without any legal justification, including after he retired from the IDF.
Regarding the classified information allegedly maintained by Benayahu and Viner, the police said the information could have endangered national security.
The police also recommended that top defense ministry official Amir Kayin be disciplined, but not criminally indicted, for warning Ashkenazi about the Shin Bet leak investigation.