An anti-government protester was detained for questioning Sunday over comments in which he appeared to justify the potential assassination of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Zeev Raz, a former combat pilot who led the air force squadron in the celebrated 1981 mission to bomb an Iraqi nuclear reactor, is suspected of incitement and making threats, the Israel Police said. The case is being handled by the Lahav 433 national crime squad, the statement said.
Netanyahu blamed opposition parties for the incident, saying they were supporting “irresponsible incitement” against him that, he warned, was threatening democracy.
Raz, who was a prominent figure in the anti-Netanyahu Balfour protest movement in 2020 and 2021, had insinuated to followers that the Jewish religious principle of din rodef, allowing the extrajudicial killing of an individual who intends to kill or harm others, could apply to a prime minister in that case, as well as to his cabinet ministers and followers.
“If a prime minister stands up and assumes dictatorial powers for himself, he deserves to die, it’s as simple as that,” he wrote in a Friday Facebook post that did not mention Netanyahu by name. If a leader behaves “in a dictatorial way, there’s an obligation to kill them,” Raz added.
Justifying his claim, he appeared to argue that allowing the controversial judicial overhaul to move forward would result in “a lot of innocent dead, and it’s better to kill the criminals first.”
Communications Minister Shlomo Karhi of Netanyahu’s Likud party filed a police complaint against Raz on Sunday morning.
Raz’s attorney Daniel Hacklai told Channel 12 that “I cautiously expect that the case will be closed and he will not be put on trial.”
While conceding that “what he wrote should not have been written,” Hacklai stressed that Raz was not calling for Netanyahu’s assassination but rather was speaking “hypothetically” about what would happen if a dictatorship developed.
In public statements at the start of Sunday’s weekly cabinet meeting, Netanyahu told ministers that the incident was “an explicit threat to assassinate a prime minister in Israel.
“This threat was posted in black and white on Facebook and came from a leading figure in the anti-government protests,” he said. “It is a direct result of irresponsible incitement that receives support and backing, and sometimes explicit statements, from the opposition.”
The prime minister called on opposition leaders to “condemn the incitement and denounce the instigators,” warning that “explicit calls for murder, for political murder, is not something that can be debated — it is a real danger to democracy that everyone should come out strongly against.”
Meanwhile, the person that Raz said he was quoting in the controversial post, Prof. Avshalom Elitzur, published a lengthy explanation on Facebook as a follow-up to his remarks.
“A prime minister is replaced only in elections, motions of no confidence, etc., that is to say — only in a democratic way,” he wrote. “Therefore, if a prime minister arises and, God forbid, abolishes democracy… then either that prime minister will not be replaced by government or, in the absence of democracy, will be replaced in an undemocratic manner.”
On Saturday, amid increasing outrage over his comments, Raz again took to Facebook in an effort to retract his earlier statement, claiming he was only quoting someone else who had initially made the comments. “When my wife became scared I took down the post. It really wasn’t the best phrasing, so I took it down and clarified [things],” he told Channel 12.
The Netanyahu coalition is pushing a dramatic overhaul that would increase government control over the judiciary. Critics say that along with other planned legislation, the sweeping reforms will impact Israel’s democratic character by upsetting its system of checks and balances, granting almost all power to the executive branch, and leaving individual rights unprotected and minorities undefended.
The plan has drawn intense criticism and warnings from leading financial and legal experts, as well as weekly mass protests and public petitions by various officials, professionals, and private companies.
Netanyahu has pushed back against the criticism, saying that the overhaul would strengthen democracy rather than hasten its end, and that his government was carrying out the will of the people.
On Sunday, Likud MK Tali Gottlieb told Ynet that Raz should be put on trial. She noted that a person who sent then-prime minister Naftali Bennett a bullet had been taken to court.
In light of the increased incidence of “incitement, harm and threats,” police chief Kobi Shabtai said Saturday his force would employ a “zero tolerance” approach to social media posts calling for violence against public figures.
Shabtai said he would ensure that “police will not deny anyone the freedom of protest in a democratic country, but at the same time we will not allow violent, inciting and threatening discourse.”
The Shin Bet internal security agency also released a statement, saying it had identified an “increase in violent and inciting discourse against elected officials in general and the prime minister in particular.”
The Shin Bet said that while people had the right to protest, calls for violence were “outside legitimate discourse.”
Opposition leader Yair Lapid and National Unity party chief Benny Gantz slammed Raz’s comments.
“I strongly condemn in every way the incitement and calls for the killing of Netanyahu. This battle is for the soul of the nation. Incitement and violence only harm the fight to save the country,” Lapid tweeted. “I call on all those who love this country to protest, go out to the streets, but keep the rule of law — don’t resort to violence.”
Gantz shared a similar sentiment, adding: “No one has a license to incite, no matter how much they may have contributed to the country.”
“We will fight… in the streets, in the parliament and by other means – [but] not through incitement and calls for murder,” the former defense minister said.
With the national conversation over the proposed legal overhaul continuing to deteriorate, prominent lawyer David Hodek told an Israel Bar Association conference last week he would fight the government “with live fire” if the proposals came to pass.
He argued that the plans, championed by Justice Minister Yariv Levin, would result in the country becoming a dictatorship.
On Saturday, Hodek apologized for his comments, saying that his “words were misinterpreted and caused a storm.”
Hodek was questioned for three hours by police Sunday on suspicions of incitement to violence, before being released on bail.
“It is important for me to state that I oppose violence,” he wrote in a series of tweets, adding that he wanted to “warn against a future dictatorship.”
The legislative changes announced by Levin last month would severely restrict the High Court’s capacity to strike down laws and government decisions, with an “override clause” also enabling the Knesset to re-legislate struck-down laws with a bare majority of 61.
The changes would also give the government complete control over the selection of judges, prevent the court from using a test of “reasonableness” to judge legislation and government decisions, and allow ministers to appoint their own legal advisers, instead of getting counsel from advisers operating under the aegis of the Justice Ministry.
Lazar Berman contributed to this report.