A prominent anti-government protester on Saturday walked back incendiary comments in which he appeared to justify a potential assassination of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu if he were to “assume dictatorial powers.”
Zeev Raz, a former combat pilot who led the air force squadron in the celebrated 1981 mission to bomb an Iraqi nuclear reactor, withdrew the comments amid widespread backlash.
In a statement late Saturday night, police said they had opened a probe into Raz on “suspicion of incitement and threats.”
“If a prime minister stands up and assumes dictatorial powers for himself, he is a dead man, it’s as simple as that,” Raz wrote in a Friday Facebook post which did not mention Netanyahu by name.
Raz, who was a prominent figure in the anti-Netanyahu Balfour protest movement in 2020 and 2021, 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 ministers and followers.
If a leader behaves “in a dictatorial way, there’s an obligation to kill them,” Raz wrote.
Justifying his claim, Raz 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.”
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.
Raz said that after he saw that person delete the reference to din rodef, he too deleted his Facebook post. “I do not identify with that post,” he asserted.
Prior to the 1995 assassination of then-prime minister Yitzhak Rabin by a Jewish extremist, some in the religious-Zionist community argued that the premier’s intention to sign the Oslo Accords gave him the status of din rodef.
Netanyahu responded to the comments as he prepared to fly home from France on Saturday evening, saying that the incitement was growing and “lines are being crossed.”
“In recent weeks we have witnessed a growing wave of incitement. Lines are being crossed every day, and it seemed like every boundary had already been crossed in threats on elected officials and on me. But clearly not, because today we heard and saw a clear threat to murder the prime minister of Israel,” Netanyahu said, before he called for the security services to take action.
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.
Netanyahu’s Likud Party said it was “angered” by Raz’s comments, which were “breaking records of madness.”
“The Shin Bet and the police must act immediately to arrest him and the rest of the inciters against the prime minister,” the party said in a statement.
Opposition leader Yair Lapid said he “strongly condemns all incitement and the din rodef call against Netanyahu. This fight [against the judicial overhaul] is for the soul of the country. Any incitement and violence only harms the battle to save the nation.”
Meanwhile, in light of the increased incidence of “incitement, harm and threats,” police chief Kobi Shabtai said his force would employ a “zero tolerance” approach to social media posts calling for violence against public figures.
Shabtai said he will ensure “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 the legitimate discourse.”
On Twitter, 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 state. 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: “It is absolutely forbidden to be dragged to those places, and no one has the 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 earlier this week told an Israel Bar Association conference he would fight the government “with live fire” if the proposals came to pass.
Hodek 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.”
“It is important for me to state that I oppose violence,” Hodek wrote in a series of tweets, adding that he wanted to “warn against a future dictatorship.”
“I did not say and I did not mean that the reform should be fought with weapons, no matter how terrible it may be,” Hodek wrote.
Meanwhile, the Shin Bet has assessed that there is a concrete threat to the life of Attorney General Gali Baharav-Miara, with the threat level against her set at the highest possible rating.
In a searing position paper on Thursday, Baharav-Miara warned that the plans to radically overhaul the legal and judicial system would give the government virtually unrestrained power, without providing any institutional protections for individual rights or for Israel’s democratic character. Baharav-Miara had also informed Netanyahu on Wednesday that he cannot be involved in his government’s judicial overhaul efforts because he has a conflict of interests due to his ongoing corruption trial.
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.