Israel’s police force was facing a growing pile of questions Sunday over a decision to block a weekly protest outside the home of Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit the previous evening and to arrest two of the organizers, with public figures from across the political spectrum accusing police of ceding to pressure to prevent demonstrations against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Police on Saturday night blocked demonstrators from reaching Mandelbit’s Petah Tikvah home, where they have been holding weekly rallies for several months protesting against his handling of a number of graft cases involving Netanyahu and his family, including alleged delaying tactics.
In April, the High Court of Justice ruled that while the protests should not be used to exert improper pressure on public servants by harassing them in their private residences, it could not prevent the demonstrations, which are an “important and central component of any democratic society,”
Citing the increasingly larger crowds, which now number over 2,000 people each week, police announced on Thursday that they would no longer provide a permit for the protest until the High Court ruled Tuesday on a petition by Petah Tikva residents who claim it has caused “intolerable disruption” to those living in the area. The protests have been taking place for 39 consecutive weeks.
Having set up extensive roadblocks across the city Saturday, police arrested protest leaders Menny Naftali, a former caretaker of the Prime Minister’s Residence, and Eldad Yaniv, an anti-corruption lawyer and Labor Party activist, as they tried to make their way to the planned site of the demonstration.
Daniel Haklai, Naftali’s lawyer, said the arrests were based on “unfounded and problematic suspicions.” Lulik Assel, who represents Yaniv, told Israel Radio that the police had “hunted my client down like he was a criminal on the run.”
In a harsh rebuke of the police decision, Meretz chairwoman Zehava Galon said that “instead of fighting corruption among the political echelon, the police are preventing those who oppose it,” accusing the force of stifling democracy.
“The police have forgotten that the their role is not only to enforce the law and keep public order but also to also the protect democratic rights in Israel,” Galon wrote on Facebook.
Zionist Union chairman Avi Gabbai expressed similar sentiments, writing on Twitter that “citizens protesting and demonstrating against corruption are not the problem. Corruption is the problem and the way to fight it is not by arresting protesters.”
The left-leaning party leaders were joined by Likud MK Yehudah Glick, who wrote on Twitter that the police had made “an especially unwise decision” in making the arrests and preventing the protests against Mandelblit.
Police spokesperson Merav Lapidot denied any political motive behind the decision to prevent the protest and said the force had tried to find a solution whereby a demonstration could take place in another, less disruptive location. “The protesters were the ones who rejected our offer,” she insisted.
Lapidot also denied there was a specific order to arrest the protest leaders, but pointed to a tweet posted by Yaniv on Saturday calling for protesters to attend the demonstration despite the police assertion that it was illegal. “Come to Petah Tikva, we are allowed to oppose a police decision that a protest is ‘unlawful,'” he had written.
“We detained him because he called for other people to go to an illegal protest,” she said. “He was inciting others to break the law.”
Lapidot said that the two were not initially arrested and were only detained for questioning but refused to agree to a voluntary restraining order barring them from Petah Tikva for 10 days.
“We wanted to release them but they refused to sign an agreement not to commit the same crime again,” she said. “That seems to me like a completely reasonable request to make.”
On Sunday the Petah Tikva Magistrate’s Court ordered Naftali and Eldad released from police custody on conditionthey agree not to participate in or encourage others to join illegal demonstrations until next Monday.
The demonstrations were first kick-started by Naftali, who has in the past alleged he was verbally and physically abused by the prime minister’s wife Sara Netanyahu during his employment. In February he was awarded NIS 170,000 (about $43,735) in damages after a labor court accepted his claims.
Yaniv has made a name for himself in recent months as a determined campaigner against Netanyahu, calling for criminal investigations into corruption allegations leveled against the prime minister.
In December, Yaniv, along with Zionist Union MK Erel Margalit, petitioned the High Court to demand the attorney general answer why an investigation into suspicions that the prime minister received illicit gifts and favors from business executives had not yet been initiated despite what they called “overwhelming evidence.” A criminal probe is now in full swing.
Yaniv has also called on police to make the attorney general a witness in the so-called Case 2000, in which Netanyahu is also a criminal suspect. That case deals with recordings of Netanyahu and Yedioth publisher Arnon “Noni” Mozes hashing out an alleged quid pro quo. The reported agreement, which was not implemented, would have seen the prime minister advance legislation to curb the circulation of the Sheldon Adelson-backed free daily Israel Hayom, in exchange for more favorable coverage in Yedioth. Both Netanyahu and Mozes have been questioned under caution multiple times by police in the affair.
As cabinet secretary during that period, tasked with setting the agenda and coordinating with ministers on proposed legislation, Mandelblit must have had inside information on the Mozes case and Netanyahu’s stance on the Israel Hayom law, Yaniv argued.