Justice Minister Amir Ohana on Tuesday launched a scathing attack on state prosecutors who operate under his purview, accusing them of engaging in a blind persecution of public officials they feel threaten their standing, all while being supported by a “cult” of fawning reporters.
Responding to his accusations, Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit and State Attorney Shai Nitzan said they “regret” his comments and “reject the attempt to cast aspersions on the work of police and prosecution officials without any factual basis.”
“The law enforcement system will not be dragged into the political sphere. No person will deter or dissuade us from the correct path,” Mandelblit and Nitzan said in a joint statement.
Ohana, of the Likud party, was responding to the investigations into Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, as well as a new probe this week into possible tampering by aides to the premier against a state’s witness. Right-wing leaders have attacked the search of the aides’ phones as anti-democratic. Netanyahu on Monday called it “a terror attack against Israeli democracy.”
Ohana said he had been familiar with the prosecution for years due to his past work as a lawyer, and acknowledged there were many “diligent and devoted attorneys” who seek justice within the system.
But he appeared to allude to a so-called deep-state element within the system, saying “there is another prosecution — a prosecution within the prosecution. There are those who, alongside a small cult of court reporters, have managed to establish a perception that a war of light against darkness [is being waged].”
Any complaints against the justice system are characterized by such “court reporters” as “an attack on the rule of law,” he said.
“Political and public careers were destroyed one after the other” by this system, the minister added.
The prosecution was thus “turning itself into a political player” and setting its agenda according to political developments, Ohana claimed.
Ohana accused prosecutors of approaching the criminal investigations into Netanyahu, and the recent hearing process in the cases, with their minds already made up against the premier.
“While most prosecutors hold hearings with open minds, the prosecution within the prosecution was on holiday during the hearing, and according to leaks has already made up its mind, before it has read and responded to the considerable material [presented by the defense], regardless of what was said at the hearing,” said Ohana.
He was referring to top prosecutor Liat Ben-Ari, who oversaw the Netanyahu cases and who went on a family vacation as the third and fourth day of the prime minister’s hearings were held earlier this month.
Ohana said he had sought to open a probe in the “hundreds of leaks” from the prime minister’s investigations, but was refused amid “an utter refusal to find the truth.
“The public sees this and finds it hard to believe this is how law enforcement operates in Israel,” he said.
Ohana denied he was acting on behalf of the prime minister, saying “these issues burn within me.”
He noted that he could not effect changes in the system due to his status as a minister in a caretaker government, so long as a new government has not been formed following the recent elections in September.
He urged Mandelblit to probe his staff for leakers, saying finding and ousting such individuals was necessary to uphold public trust.
Responding to Ohana’s statement, senior Blue and White MK Ofer Shelah called the minister a patsy for Netanyahu, “who has mostly busied himself with attacking the institutions he oversees… His term is a disgrace.”
Shelah said the statement was a symbol of Netanyahu’s rule being in its final throes.
Labor-Gesher MK Revital Swid called Ohana’s press conference “a nightmare speech by Netanyahu’s latest jester. A temporary justice minister in a caretaker government comes forward and reads out the talking points and incitement document dictated to him by [Netanyahu].”
The Movement for Quality Government, a democracy watchdog, called on Netanyahu to fire Ohana immediately.
“We are appalled by Minister Ohana’s uninhibited assault on the justice system,” the organization said in a statement.”The Israeli public deserves a minister that serves it, and does not conduct himself like [an internet] commentator.”
One person who was impressed by Ohana’s speech was Netanyahu’s son Yair.
“A tip for all the senior Likud officials who are aiming for the top spot after the Netanyahu era, learn from Ohana!” tweeted Netanyahu junior. “That’s how you conquer the hearts of the hundreds of thousands of Likud voters. Amir Ohana you are a superstar.”
Netanyahu’s aides come under police scrutiny
Mandelblit on Monday asked police to address claims that investigators had overstepped their authority in searching the phones of aides to Netanyahu.
On Sunday, police confirmed they had opened an investigation into senior Netanyahu campaign figures alleged to have harassed Shlomo (Momo) Filber, a former confidant of Netanyahu who led the ruling Likud party’s campaign in the 2015 elections before testifying against the premier in an alleged bribery case.
Police confiscated the phones of Likud spokesman Jonatan Urich and the party’s campaign manager, Ofer Golan, in a move that riled right-wing activists and politicians.
Filber is a key witness in Case 4000, in which Netanyahu is alleged to have advanced regulatory decisions benefiting Shaul Elovitch, the controlling shareholder in telecom giant Bezeq, in exchange for positive coverage from the Elovitch-owned Walla news site.
Filber was director-general of the Communications Ministry, which Netanyahu headed during the period under scrutiny by prosecutors. Filber was arrested and questioned over his involvement in the case before turning state’s witness.
Urich, Golan and two others are suspected of ordering a van sent to Filber’s home with loudspeakers blasting allegations he lied about the case.
Mandelblit asked for the police’s response on Monday after he received a letter from a lawyer representing Urich, which was leaked to the press. The letter claimed that police investigators had looked at messages on his phone that were unrelated to the investigation of the harassment of Filber, Channel 12 news reported Monday.
Noa Milstein, Urich’s lawyer, sent the letter, titled “Illegal infiltration of the cell phone of Jonatan Urich,” to Mandelblit earlier Monday. It claims that police asked Urich to unlock his phone to read his messages to Golan without informing Urich of his right to refuse the request.
Urich unlocked the phone and allowed the investigator to take it out of the room. When she returned, he noticed that she had looked at messages unrelated to the case, the letter claims. The letter then states that Urich saw the investigator send information from the messages to a Telegram group dedicated to Case 4000.
In a video of the incident being probed, a vehicle bearing slogans of the Bratslav Hasidic sect can be seen parked near Filber’s home, with a voice saying: “Momo, be a man! Come out, tell the truth. Momo Filber, what did they do to you to get you to lie against the prime minister? What did they promise you? Momo, the left is using you to topple Likud! Listen to what you yourself said before police pressured you.”
A recording of Filber is then heard, saying: “There is no crime here. Where has this even come from? Everything I promoted was within my purview as director general [of the Communications Ministry].”
איזה גועל נפש. וזה בכלל אמור להיות לספר תורה pic.twitter.com/RuaJe3v4df
— Nati Tucker נתי טוקר (@nati_tucker) August 30, 2019
According to a Monday Channel 13 report, Urich told police that the initiative was a campaign stunt rather than an authentic effort to harass Filber, and said Netanyahu was not aware of the initiative.
In a tweet, the prime minister called the search of his aides’ phones “a terror attack against Israeli democracy and every citizen’s right to privacy.”
“We don’t live under a totalitarian regime and this is unacceptable,” he said. “The goal is to terrorize my immediate circle and thus deny me the ability to respond to the criminal flood of leaks that is targeting me nonstop.”
In a joint statement Monday afternoon, the police and Justice Ministry said the phones were confiscated “due to clear investigative requirements.” They said that the devices would not be opened or examined without specific court warrants allowing it, and limited only to contacts specified in such warrants.
They stressed that any attempt to intimidate or harass witnesses was viewed severely, and particularly in the case of a state witness. “Law enforcement authorities will show no tolerance toward actions of this type,” they said.
But “due to the obvious sensitivity, the investigation is being conducted under the observation of the most senior levels of the justice system.”
Netanyahu faces pending charges of fraud, breach of trust and bribery in Case 4000. He also faces fraud and breach of trust charges in two other cases. He denies any wrongdoing.
Earlier this month, Mandelblit’s office held a pre-indictment hearing for the premier, having previously announced his intention to charge him in all three cases.
Netanyahu is suspected of an illicit quid pro quo with Elovitch that continued for about four years until early 2017. The alleged understanding saw Elovitch ensure favorable coverage of Netanyahu at Walla, Israel’s second-largest news site, and critical coverage of Netanyahu’s rivals, especially in the 2013 and 2015 election periods.
Mandelblit’s lengthy description of Netanyahu’s alleged illicit dealings with Elovitch took up the majority of a 57-page document released in February, in which the attorney general set out the allegations that prompted him to announce a pending criminal indictment against the prime minister.
The second case against the premier, Case 1000, involves accusations that Netanyahu received gifts and benefits from billionaire benefactors. Mandelblit said he intends to charge Netanyahu with fraud and breach of trust — the latter a somewhat murkily defined offense relating to an official violating the trust the public has placed in him.
The third, Case 2000, revolves around accusations Netanyahu agreed with Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper publisher Arnon Mozes, to weaken a rival daily in return for more favorable coverage from Yedioth. In this case, Mandelblit will seek to also charge the premier with breach of trust, while Mozes will be charged with bribery, pending a hearing.
The prime minister denies the allegations and claims to be the victim of a witch hunt involving the opposition, the media, the police and state prosecutors.