One might think that with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s corruption trial set to begin in Jerusalem District Court on May 24, now would be the time to brush up on what exactly he is accused of.
One might think that with the upcoming trial sure to dominate the national discourse for months, this would be the time to review the whole affair – take a look at cases 1000, 2000 and 4000 – and reacquaint oneself with some of the other key figures involved: Arnon Milchan, James Packer, Noni Mozes and Shaul Elovitch. Especially Elovitch, the former owner of the Bezeq Group and of the Walla! media website whom Netanyahu – in his capacity as communications minister – is accused of benefiting to the tune of hundreds of millions of shekels in return for positive media coverage.
But before delving into those cases, it might be wise to refresh oneself with the details of another affair that burst back onto the stage on Friday night: the Harpaz Affair, which will heavily impact public opinion before and around the Netanyahu trial.
That’s right, the Harpaz Affair, that dizzying, confusing, convoluted affair that began with a conflict between then defense minister Ehud Barak and the IDF chief of staff at the time, Gabi Ashkenazi, in 2010.
The two, at odds over who deserved credit for Operation Cast Lead in 2008-2009, then battled over whether Ashkenazi’s term would be extended by a year, and when it was not, who would replace him. Barak wanted Yoav Galant; Ashkenazi very much did not, preferring instead Gadi Eizenkot.
Enter Boaz Harpaz, a reserve intelligence officer and associate of Ashkenazi, who faked a document to make it look like Barak’s camp cooked up a smear campaign to discredit Ashkenazi and get Galant appointed. The army’s chief lawyer at the time was Avichai Mandelblit, who came under suspicion for not being straightforward about everything he knew about the document, and when.
While Harpaz was formally indicted in 2016, the police recommendation to indict Ashkenazi, Mandelblit and two of Ashkenazi’s close confidants, former IDF spokesman Avi Benayahu and former aide Erez Weiner, was not accepted by then attorney-general Yehuda Weinstein, who opted to close the case. The High Court of Justice later ruled that Mandelblit did nothing wrong in the way he dealt with the matter.
Last year, the Tel Aviv District Court convicted Harpaz of forging a document and sentenced him to 220 hours of community service. Case closed? Not a chance. It has been cited repeatedly by Netanyahu backers as a sterling example of the legal elite out to protect its own, and as proof of how Netanyahu is judged and held by a different standard.
So why is this case again coming up now?
On Friday night, Channel 13 journalist Ayala Hasson-Nesher, who has been doggedly covering the affair for the better part of the decade, let it be known that one of the tapes of a conversation between Ashkenazi and Mandelblit raised possible obstruction-of-justice questions. There is a gag order on the tape of that conversation, whose existence was first revealed in February, because of the manner in which it was recorded, a manner that does not enable it to be presented as evidence.
And how does all this impact on Netanyahu’s upcoming trial? It is being used by some Netanyahu backers to present Mandelblit, the man who decided to press charges against the prime minister, as someone who himself is far from a straight shooter and as someone whose integrity has been impugned. While it is not clear how that may impact on the three judges who will hear Netanyahu’s case, fertilizing this seed in the mind of the public will lead to questions about the legitimacy of the whole trial, a legitimacy that many already question.
And all this is happening two weeks before the trial, a likely promo of how nasty things will get once the actual trial begins, and both the pro- and anti-Netanyahu camps can be expected to stop at little to delegitimize one another. Those who thought and hoped that with a new Netanyahu-Benny Gantz rotation government the ugliness of the election campaigns the country witnessed over the last 18 months would be on the wane are likely to be in for a considerable disappointment.