As an election approaches, Avichai Mandelblit, Israel’s low-key attorney general, is under intense pressure from both the prime minister and the public
When Avichai Mandelblit first considered an offer to join Benjamin Netanyahu’s administration in 2013, he told Israel’s prime minister that he’d accept if he could finish his doctorate and stay out of politics, aides to him say.
Mr. Mandelblit managed to earn his Ph.D. in law. But now as Israel’s attorney general, he is at the center of one of the country’s biggest political storms.
Following two years of corruption probes targeting Mr. Netanyahu—and a recommendation by Israeli police to charge him with bribery, fraud and breach of trust—Mr. Mandelblit is weighing whether to indict his boss. He must also decide whether to do so ahead of April elections the Israeli leader called early to run for a fifth term. Mr. Mandelblit’s decision could come as soon as February.
At the heart of the political drama are two men who have responded to the crisis in starkly different ways. Mr. Netanyahu has used angry bluster and a public campaign to cast doubt on the corruption charges and his handpicked attorney general. Mr. Mandelblit, like the dogged doctoral student he once was before his 25-year career in the legal branch of Israel’s military, has avoided the limelight and burrowed into the legal merits of the corruption charges, say friends and colleagues. A decision to indict a sitting prime minister would be unprecedented and could upend Israeli politics.
“He basically holds Israel’s political destiny in his hands,” said Shalom Lipner, a scholar with the Brookings Institution think tank who worked for several prime ministers including Mr. Netanyahu.
Mr. Mandelblit’s role is especially delicate because he also serves as the government’s top legal adviser, which means he’s both advising Mr. Netanyahu and judging him for alleged crimes against the state.
Notably, the two men continue to hold private meetings. Those have been the subject of several court challenges, including one from a government watchdog group that petitioned Israel’s Supreme Court last year to halt them. The country’s top court rejected it, saying Mr. Mandelblit can be trusted to maintain “a ‘Chinese Wall’ between his various responsibilities.”
.. But their working relationship hasn’t stopped the embattled prime minister from attacking the investigation. Recently, Mr. Netanyahu has released a series of videos urging Mr. Mandelblit not to announce any decision to indict him ahead of the April 9 elections, saying such a move would unfairly sway the outcome.
Mr. Netanyahu has also launched a slick social media campaign playing down some of the allegations—that he traded favors for better news coverage—by comparing bribery without money to soccer without Argentine player Lionel Messi or celebrity Kim Kardashian without her husband, the rapper Kanye West.
“What are they talking about when they say bribery? About money? About envelopes? About bank accounts? About Greek Islands? Not at all! They are talking about favorable coverage,” said a visibly upset Mr. Netanyahu in a prime time televised speech earlier this month.
Protesters, alleging that Mr. Mandelblit is delaying a decision to benefit his boss, have gathered outside his home every Saturday since late 2016, booing his name alongside effigies of Messrs. Netanyahu Mandelblit and the other major players in the probe— billionaires, media moguls and witnesses—all in prisoners’ garb. His father’s grave was recently vandalized and he has been the subject of threatening graffiti.
“Netanyahu thought that by bringing the election ahead he would pre-empt Mandelblit and win the election and then deal with the legal issues after it,” said Anshel Pfeffer, author of “Bibi, The Turbulent Life and Times of Benjamin Netanyahu.” “But since Mandelblit does not seem to be intimidated it’s now becoming a major issue.”
Politically, it is more complicated. Even if he’s indicted, Mr. Netanyahu is still favored to win the elections, with recent polls showing his supporters saying he can still manage Israel’s economy and protect the nation’s security. But Mr. Netanyahu’s challenge would be finding coalition partners willing to form a government with him if he’s indicted. He would get the chance to defend himself in a pre-indictment hearing before charges proceed.
The stress of the job shows. Mr. Mandelblit’s hair, once light red, has noticeably grayed.