State Comptroller Joseph Shapira.
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
The Attorney-General’s Office believes it did nothing wrong in its handling of the latest scandal possibly implicating Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu just revealed by the state comptroller, The Jerusalem Post learned on Thursday.
Facing three major criticisms by the comptroller regarding its judgment relating to scandals involving Netanyahu, including that its decisions may have allowed aspects of the scandals to broaden, the Post has learned that the Attorney-General’s Office thinks that all of its decisions are defensible from what it knew at the time.
State Comptroller Joseph Shapira on Wednesday disclosed that Netanyahu and the Communications Ministry “did not disclose to the attorney-general the full list” of his conflicts of interest connected to businessman Shaul Elovitch, the controlling shareholder in Bezeq and Walla, when asked.
Elovitch is also the controlling shareholder of Yes, Pelephone, Bezeq International, Halal Communications and Walla and has been a close friend of Netanyahu, who held all aspects of the Communications Minister portfolio until June 2016.
Elovitch is under criminal investigation for allegedly violating conflict of interest principles in a transaction between two of his companies: Bezeq and Yes.
Based on the incomplete disclosures by Netanyahu to Attorney-General Avichai Mandelblit, Mandelblit’s office in June 2016 limited Netanyahu’s authority as communications minister.
Many legal experts at the time criticized the Attorney-General’s Office for permitting Netanyahu to retain the Communications portfolio, criticism that was later confirmed as valid when additional conflict of interest disclosures led to the prime minister giving it up completely.
Second, Wednesday’s State Comptroller’s Report also criticized Mandelblit for failing to disclose to the public that he considered reviewing Netanyahu’s decisions prior to the latter stepping down for alleged illegal influence but decided not to review them in detail.
Third, the report critiqued the Attorney-General’s Office for failing to curtail the authority of Communications Ministry director- general Shlomo Filber, now also under criminal investigation, for Netanyahu-related conflicts.
It said that Filber’s status as the Likud campaign chairman in the 2015 election and as a key Netanyahu aide in earlier years meant that his appointment in the ministry was a close political appointment that could be connected to Netanyahu’s conflicts of interest.
Regarding the June 2016 decision that allowed Netanyahu to continue as communications minister, Mandelblit’s staff would say that, with all of the conflicts then disclosed, there simply was not a critical mass to obligate the prime minister to entirely give up the portfolio.
Once a criminal investigation into Netanyahu receiving gifts from Israeli billionaire Hollywood producer Arnon Milchan later revealed potential conflicts relating to Channel 10, the staff decided that there were too many issues on the table for Netanyahu to retain the portfolio.
Next, while Mandelblit’s office acknowledges that it might have been wiser to disclose to the public the process and results of considering reviewing decisions that Netanyahu made before he stepped down from the Communications Ministry, it would also emphasize that the comptroller did not slam Mandelblit’s conclusions.
In other words, the comptroller accepted that Mandelblit’s ultimate decision not to review earlier Netanyahu decisions was valid even if the comptroller criticized the lack of transparency.
Mandelblit’s staff disagrees that the lack of transparency has caused a new breach of trust between the public and his office.
On the third issue of Filber, the Attorney-General’s Office recognizes that the Elovitch and Filber investigations could reflect that its failure to limit Filber’s authority were problematic. But the office would emphasize that preventing both a minister and his director- general from handling major policy issues could seriously hamper a ministry’s ability to operate.
If confronted by the idea that perhaps politicians need to see such a handicapped ministry to be deterred from running or appointing close associates to run ministries in a way that violates conflict of interest principles, Mandelblit’s staff would feel that permitting a minister to appoint his top lieutenants to such posts is too entrenched and logical to fight it as a phenomena.
Most surprising, the Attorney-General’s Office has not shifted its overall perspective on dealing with conflict of interest issues even after the comptroller’s push for this and the newly disclosed abuses that appear to seriously undermine the Attorney-General’s Office’s prior decisions.
Rather, the office still thinks of the issue as highly complex with many competing priorities, and the scandals raised by the comptroller report are just more of many key factors that affect how it will deal with potential conflicts of interest going forward.