The Rishon Lezion Magistrate’s Court on Wednesday ordered former IDF spokesman Brig.-Gen. (res.) Avi Benayahu and Col. (res.) Erez Winner, who served as assistant to former IDF chief Lt.-Gen. (res.) Gabi Ashkenazi, to remain in detention overnight.
The two men are being questioned for allegedly obstructing an investigation, destroying evidence, assisting in illegal surveillance of various officials and leaking highly classified documents as part of the Harpaz Affair.
With two of Ashkenazi’s former top aides being questioned, speculation is rampant about when he will be questioned, with predictions ranging from as early as Thursday to not anytime soon.
Ashkenazi’s former top aides deny the charges, and accuse former defense minister Ehud Barak and his aides of being the true law-breakers.
Benayahu gave an unusual and emotional response at the hearing, stating, “I stand before you, a 54-year-old man for whom it is hard to hear that he is a danger to public security.”
He continued, “For more than two decades I was found to be fit by the leaders of the nation for the most sensitive roles. I have devoted most of my life to the public’s security even at the highest levels.” He added that he had been tangled within the Harpaz Affair “against my will” and “I am not a criminal and not even the son of a criminal.”
The Harpaz Affair refers to an alleged 2010 plot by Lt.-Col. (res.) Boaz Harpaz, and possibly others, to illegally undermine then-defense minister Barak’s choice to succeed Ashkenazi as IDF chief, as part of a more general battle between Barak and Ashkenazi involving both sides allegedly spying and spreading misinformation about the other.
The fallout from the affair, if it leads to an indictment against Ashkenazi, still considered quite uncertain, could cause the downfall of a man who was one of the most popular IDF chiefs of staff in recent memory, and who has been considered a potential future prime minister.
On the other hand, many say that if Ashkenazi is not indicted, he will remain in a strong future political position.
While Ashkenazi and his former aides have accused Barak’s side of destroying evidence – cassette tapes that would have incriminated them – and the tapes were in fact destroyed, predictions that Barak’s explanations would spare him a criminal investigation seem to have been accurate.
Police questioned Winner and Benayahu on Wednesday and had sought an eight-day remand extension for both men.
Judge Menahem Mizrahi ordered an initial detention until 8 p.m. on Thursday, which could be extended.
The court said it was allowing the detention of such high-ranking former IDF officers not because concerns of flight risk, but because of concerns that if the two were released they could coordinate stories or otherwise obstruct justice.
According to the arrest warrants secured by police against Benayahu and Winner, the two men “worked along with others to collect and distribute material that defamed IDF personnel and politicians while carrying out a series of crimes, in particular destruction of evidence and obstruction of justice.”
The warrant says that both men were illegally in possession of classified and top secret documents that they passed on to unapproved persons.
But Benayahu’s lawyers responded that all the police had done was to take his home computer that he had been allowed to use to do IDF-related work.
Harpaz himself was on Tuesday held and released by police to 10 days’ house arrest, after being questioned for his role in the case.
He is banned from leaving the country.
In November, Harpaz said in press interviews that Ashkenazi tried to obstruct the investigation, calling him and telling him to play down their connection and the frequency of their contact.
Harpaz also said that Ashkenazi, in contradiction to his statements to police, encouraged an individual to provide documents to the state comptroller that eventually torpedoed the candidacy of Maj.- Gen. Yoav Galant to succeed Ashkenazi.
However, Harpaz has changed his story numerous times.
At the detention hearing on Wednesday, Benayahu’s lawyer Eyal Rozovsky said that all of the evidence being reviewed in the police questioning dates back to the central events of the Harpaz Affair in 2010.
Rozovsky said this meant that all of the interrogation was over old and stale issues, and that there was nothing new that could cause the police to suspect that Benayahu would obstruct or tamper with the investigation.
While denying there had been any obstruction of justice, Rozovsky added that if anyone was going to tamper with the investigation, they would have done so in the last few years and not suddenly tried to do so now.
In contrast, the police claimed “to a near certainty” that Winner and Benayahu have acted “to obstruct the investigation, actively destroy evidence,” making it imperative to keep them in custody until sensitive aspects of questioning were completed.
Under cross-examination, the police implied that they were also questioning Benayahu and Winner regarding new evidence that had not previously been used in the investigation.
Attorney David Shwartzbaum, who is representing Winner along with attorney Oded Subarai, said on Wednesday evening, “Erez Winner is pleased that the Harpaz Affair is being investigated, as he wanted. He’s astounded that the investigation stands to be one-sided.”
He added, “There is also the need to probe the staff of the Defense Minister’s bureau on suspicion of destroying evidence, in regards to their destruction of all of the conversations that took place in the minister’s bureau, as opposed to those that took place in the chief of staff’s bureau, all of which were handed over.”
Benayahu’s and Winner’s lawyers complained that their clients had been arrested unnecessarily by surprise and that the interrogations had unnecessarily started late in the day, along with a late decision to seek overnight detention.
They claimed that if the interrogations had started earlier, they could have easily been finished in one day without any possible need for detention overnight.
Many reports said additional top former IDF officials were being questioned as witnesses for the case, but their names were still under a gag order since they were not criminal suspects.