North Africa, West Asia

Israel: a turning point in anti-corruption efforts?

A new attorney general seems to have adopted a tougher line on investigating allegations of political corruption.

Yakir Gillis
15 July 2016

Demonstration in Tel Aviv : sign reads, "Netanyahu and Deri stink of corruption", November 2015. Dan Balilty / Press Association. All rights reserved.War and security have long dominated public discourse in Israel, often overshadowing the country’s other pressing issues. Notable among these is the legal system’s attitude to high-level state corruption, which has played a crucial role in shaping the Israeli political landscape.

Since the 1990s, as Israel’s economy was gradually liberalised, the country’s law enforcement agencies became more willing to tackle corruption among politicians and government officials. The attitude of the state’s attorney generals has been crucial in this process, as they ultimately decide whether to investigate or prosecute senior public figures. 

Perhaps the most assertive attorney general was Meni Mazuz, now a supreme court judge, who held the post between 2004 and 2010. Mazuz led an unprecedented number of investigations and prosecutions against senior politicians, including former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, as well as several cabinet ministers, members of the Knesset, and mayors. His decisions as attorney general were not always well-received, with some critics arguing that the legal establishment was exerting undue influence over political decision-making.

The appointment in 2010 of defence attorney Yehuda Weinstein as attorney general reversed this trend. Weinstein had previously represented Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and other senior politicians, and his appointment by the Netanyahu administration was viewed by many as part of an effort to limit scrutiny of the government’s actions.  

Under Weinstein’s tenure, investigations and prosecutions of public figures declined sharply. Significantly, in 2012 he decided not to prosecute then-Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman for fraud and breach of trust, contrary to the recommendation of the central investigations unit of the Israeli police. Weinstein also appeared to have made decisions that favoured Netanyahu, such as his postponement in 2015 of an enquiry into controversial expenses related to the Prime Minister’s residence until after the elections that year. 

Weinstein’s successor, the former secretary of Netanyahu’s cabinet Avichai Mendelblit who was appointed in January 2016, was expected to continue in the same vein. But recent developments suggest that Mendelblit may be more independent than previously thought. Last month he instructed Netanyahu, who also holds the Ministry of Communications portfolio, not to act in matters concerning Israel’s largest media group Bezek, due to his friendship with the group’s owner Shaul Elovitz. 

On Sunday, Mendelblit publicly acknowledged that he is reviewing evidence relating to payments received by Netanyahu from unnamed foreign businessmen. The reports followed a separate review opened by the attorney general earlier this month into suspected illegal payments to Netanyahu by French billionaire Arno Mimran, who was sentenced last week to eight years in prison in a major fraud case in France.

Mimran reportedly stated in court that he had paid €1 million to Netanyahu’s election campaign, although he has since claimed that he had made a much smaller payment directly to Netanyahu in 2001, when he was a private citizen. The prime minister denied both claims but conceded that his public affairs foundation received $40,000 from Mimran in 2001.  

Mendelblit is also reviewing two cases relating to Netanyahu and his wife’s travel and residence expenses. Separately, in March the attorney general launched a corruption investigation against Minister of Interior Aryeh Deri. Deri had previously served time in prison for bribery.   

It is still too early to tell whether Mendelblit represents a departure from his predecessor. Whatever the case, however, his decisions in the near future could determine Netanyahu’s political fortunes.

The Prime Minister is facing mounting criticism over his conduct, particularly from high-profile veterans of the security establishment, after he sacked the respected Defence Minister Moshe Ya'alon and replaced him with the controversial Lieberman. While Mendelblit is unlikely to emerge as one of the more assertive attorney generals the country has known, even a slightly more robust approach could undermine the prime minister and his government.    

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