Israel’s top prosecutor defended investigators’ handling of graft probes involving Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, rejected claims the decision to charge the premier was motivated by political bias, and dismissed Netanyahu’s claim that the prosecution framed him.
State Attorney Shai Nitzan, whose six-year tenure wraps up at the end of this week, has come under heavy criticism from Netanyahu and his backers since Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit’s decision last month to indict the prime minister on charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust.
Asked, in an interview aired Friday before he leaves office, why he was being criticized, Nitzan said he believed it was because it was easier to make claims against an individual than against the heart of the issue at hand.
“If a person argues there was no nothing, then cling to that,” Nitzan told Channel 12 news, referring to Netanyahu’s denial of wrongdoing.
He stressed the decision to charge Netanyahu was not his alone, and denied politics had any impact on prosecutors’ considerations.
“It is not my personal position [to indict]. A team of 25 people sat down — I have no idea what their political views are — and everyone thought an indictment needs to be filed,” Nitzan said.
As for the prime minister’s assertion that he was being framed, Nitzan said: “What is meant by the claim that this is a frame-up? Did I initiate the prime minister’s conversations with Noni Mozes [the Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper publisher, at the heart of Case 2000]. Did I fake that, with someone impersonating them? Nobody is claiming that those conversations didn’t take place. So what’s is meant by this claim, ‘I’m being framed’?”
In an emotional speech after the charges against him were announced on November 21, Netanyahu claimed the state prosecution and law enforcement were attempting a political coup against him, and that he was being framed for crimes he did not commit.
Nitzan also addressed calls by Netanyahu and his supporters for him to be investigated.
“What crime did I commit?” Nitzan said. “In a democratic state, [you] go to prison if you committed a crime, stand trial and are convicted. In other states you go to prison if someone decides, for example like it was in South America in the past.”
Nitzan said he had almost no contact with Justice Minister Amir Ohana, a Netanyahu loyalist appointed to the post in June who has issued blistering attacks against prosecutors.
“I think in four months, besides [saying] hello on the stairs, he didn’t exchange a word with me. That’s his choice,” he said.
Nitzan denied leaking investigatory materials concerning Netanyahu to the media, one of the premier and Ohana’s main complaints against prosecutors, and expressed concern the public was losing trust in the legal system as it comes under criticism.
“If they succeed in smashing the prosecution, God forbid, everything will fall apart,” Nitzan said.
After portions of the interview were aired Wednesday, Nitzan was accused by Netanyahu of exploiting rape victims when pushing back against the premier’s response to the investigations against him.
“Let’s suppose there was a public figure, for example, who raped,” Nitzan said in that excerpt. “And you would say to me, ‘but the majority of the public voted’… so we are going to a public trial, and if like in ancient Rome the public [gives a thumbs up] then he won’t stand trial, and [if it gives a thumbs down] he’ll be executed.”
Asked by the interviewer whether he was comparing Netanyahu’s alleged crimes, including illicitly receiving of cigars and pricey bottles of champagnes from wealthy benefactors, to rape, Nitzan said, “God forbid.”
“What I am comparing is that legal decisions can’t be made like in a reality show… [where] the public votes yes or no,” he said.
“I told you it was hard for me to imagine a senior official will be accused of rape,” Nitzan stressed, saying that the point he was trying to make was that “a person’s legal fate can’t be decided at the ballot box.”
He also noted that a former president, Moshe Katsav, was jailed for rape.
After the clip was aired, Netanyahu seized on the rape reference and called on Nitzan to apologize.
“I’m shocked that Shai Nitzan used rape victims in order to justify his obsessive witch hunt against me. Apparently there are no limits in the effort to bring down the Likud government led by me,” the prime minister tweeted.
“Shai Nitzan must apologize immediately — and first of all to victims of rape crimes,” he added.
Nitzan, who was appointed in 2013 by Netanyahu, has been portrayed by the prime minister’s associates, without proof, as a left-wing activist bent on removing the premier from office through illegitimate means. Immediately after charges against him were officially announced, Netanyahu claimed they were “an attempted coup” against his rule.
Nitzan will step down from his post at the end of the week. The issue of a replacement has already set Mandelblit and Ohana on a collision course, with the Netanyahu loyalist insisting that he would choose the interim state attorney. Mandelblit reportedly intends to have the final word on who gets the job.