A-G closes case against former IDF chief Ashkenazi

Ruling paves way for political career; Harpaz Affair saga closes in after over 5 years; Weinstein still slams Ashkenazi for conduct unbecoming.

Gabi Ashkenazi (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
Gabi Ashkenazi
Attorney-General Yehuda Weinstein on Wednesday closed the Harpaz Affair case against former IDF chief of staff Lt.-Gen. (res.) Gabi Ashkenazi, former head IDF spokesman Brig.-Gen. (res.) Avi Benayahu and Ashkenazi’s former top aide Col. (res.) Erez Winer.
Until the Harpaz Affair sidetracked him, Ashkenazi was touted as a future contender for prime minister. He had been popular for having rebuilt the IDF after the 2006 Second Lebanon War, where many thought the IDF underperformed.
Now, Ashkenazi is rumored once again as a potential competitor against Isaac Herzog for chairmanship of the Zionist Union party, though years of bad publicity may have hurt his prospects.
The Harpaz Affair was an alleged 2010 plot by Lt.-Col. (res.) Boaz Harpaz to illegally undermine then-defense minister Ehud Barak’s choice to succeed Ashkenazi as IDF chief of staff, as part of a battle between Barak and Ashkenazi involving each side allegedly spying and spreading misinformation about the other.
The maneuver delayed the appointment of Barak’s original choice to head the military, Maj.-Gen. (res.) Yoav Galant. Galant was eventually sidelined by other allegations, though. He later entered politics with the Kulanu party and is now construction minister.
Once Galant was passed over, the warring sides selected Benny Gantz as a compromise candidate for IDF chief.
There is also speculation Gantz, who stepped down last year, would have strong support if he entered politics.
Gantz’s successor, current IDF chief Lt.-Gen. Gadi Eisenkot, was also initially engulfed by the Harpaz Affair, but his involvement was ancillary enough for him to come away unscathed and beat a petition to the High Court of Justice challenging his appointment.
A decision about whether to indict Boaz Harpaz was still pending, while the case regarding related suspicions against Ashkenazi’s wife, Ronit, and Col. (res.) Gabi Siboni were also dropped.
Benayahu said: “I praise the decision and my focus is on the future. All along, I continued to state that there was no basis for this unnecessary and dragged out investigation, as was believed by many senior members of the police and the prosecution.”
Winer also praised the decision to shut the case, but demanded an investigation into why resources were “wasted” on what he described as a wild goose chase.
He slammed his arrest earlier in the case as unnecessary and “an injustice.”
Weinstein’s unusual 113-page opinion explaining the basis for closing the five-year saga has no rival in recent memory besides the decision to close a major criminal case against Yisrael Beytenu party chairman Avigdor Liberman in December 2012.
Essentially left out of Weinstein’s decision, was a report issued by then-state comptroller Micha Lindenstrauss accusing Barak of abusing his authorities in stalling Ashkenazi’s appointments in the IDF.
But in 2014, police rejected Barak’s then headline-grabbing accusation that Ashkenazi, Benayahu and Winer had colluded in a “putsch” to try and overthrow him.
The police also rejected allegations that Ashkenazi or the others had any connection to Harpaz’s forging of a document which led to the launch of the investigation. Police said their investigation lent further support to their belief that the “Harpaz document,” which detailed fictitious plans in the Barak camp for a mudslinging campaign against Askhenazi, was not a forgery.
Weinstein fully adopted the police’s findings on these issues, closing these charges against Ashkenazi, Benayahu and Winer on the basis of “no grounds for suspicion of an offense” – meaning even the investigation could be said to have been unnecessary.
Weinstein also rejected police recommendations made in September 2014 to charge Ashkenazi with two counts of breach of public trust and illegally revealing classified material, for his alleged delay of handing over his copy of the Harpaz document, and allegedly revealing top secret information to reporters in “background” conversations.
Regarding the Harpaz document, Ashkenazi did not hold onto it for long and sought the counsel of then-top IDF lawyer Avichai Mandelblit, turning over the document when Mandelblit told him to.
As for Ashkenazi’s conversations with reporters, Weinstein said if not for “the lack of clear norms and the absence of prior enforcement” by the IDF legal division for breaches of regulations regarding classified information for other members of the IDF General Staff, he might have indicted Ashkenazi.
In that spirit, the attorney-general recommended that the state form a commission for clarifying and solidifying better norms of conduct for IDF General Staff interactions with the press over classified information.
Weinstein also closed the case against Ashkenazi and the other suspects for alleged “spying” on or trying to undermine Barak. He cited “insufficient evidence,” but criticized their actions as ethically problematic.
In particular, Weinstein criticized Ashkenazi for speaking to Harpaz right before he (Harpaz) was about to be questioned by police and for not being forthcoming about this conversation to police.
Ultimately, he said he could not reject Ashkenazi’s claim that he had told Harpaz to tell the truth.
Harpaz gave the same story.
Harpaz had claimed differently in an interview with journalist Ayala Hasson, yet, when confronted by police, he went silent.
Weinstein also closed charges against Benayahu and Winer for eliminating potential evidence that could have incriminated Ashkenazi.
Explaining that eliminating the evidence was misconduct, Weinstein said their intent in eliminating the evidence was not criminal, but to protect Ashkenazi from suspicions that Barak would improperly air embarrassing personal information about him in the press.
Further, Benayahu and Winer both knew there were copies of the evidence elsewhere that were unknown to Barak, so they did not believe that they were completely eliminating evidence.
Similarly, Benayahu and Winer were cleared of improperly holding classified documents in their residences, because they did not know the documents were there and because the IDF prosecution has been lenient in prosecuting such cases where the information never leaked to the public – as in this case.
Weinstein had months ago already closed the case against Mandelblit, the former top IDF lawyer, then cabinet secretary, and his successor as attorney-general as of February 1.
Mandelblit had been accused of misleading Weinstein’s deputy for around a day about his having received the Harpaz document from Ashkenazi, but the case was closed since the issue of whether Mandelblit could wait a day to consider his obligations as legal adviser to Ashkenazi was viewed as muddying the charges.
The attorney-general himself was practically pushed into the criminal investigation by then state comptroller Lindenstrauss and then-IDF military-advocate general Maj.-Gen. Danny Efroni.
At first, in 2013, Weinstein only ordered a more limited military investigation of Ashkenazi for conduct unbecoming of an officer.
But continuous pressure by Lindenstrauss and Efroni following new evidence found during that military investigation eventually led to a wider criminal probe.
Weinstein on Wednesday recalled this history in explaining why it had taken so long to reach a decision, including that from mid-2013 it took the prosecution around 18 months to become familiar with the more than 100,000 case-related telephone conversations and 138 witnesses interviewed by police.