Culture Minister Miri Regev came under fire Sunday for comparing officials in Israel’s judiciary in charge of handling the probes against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to plotters from the biblical Book of Esther, who planned to assassinate Persian king Ahasuerus and were executed for their treason.
Regev made the comments at a Purim banquet in Rishon Lezion Saturday to mark the Jewish holiday, when the Book of Esther is traditionally read, saying investigators were akin to Bigthan and Teresh, two eunuchs appearing in the story.
Her remarks drew immediate condemnation and she clarified Sunday that she did not call to harm anyone.
“We have been elected by the people, but there are advisers and bureaucrats who have gotten used to deciding what is right and what isn’t — these days they are called the ‘gatekeepers,'” Regev said Saturday, as quoted by the Yedioth Ahronoth daily, referring to legal officials making decisions in the various corruption investigations involving the prime minister and his associates.
“The Book of Esther also features gatekeepers. Bigthan and Teresh. A lovely pair,” Regev continued. “They displayed statesmanship, appeared careful to uphold the rule of law, but it turns out that deep down they held a guillotine.”
“It turns out the moment they didn’t identify with the king, disagreed with his way of running the kingdom, all rules were off, their statesmanship was gone, and rule of law became less vital.”
In the Book of Esther, Mordechai overhears the angry pair plotting to kill the king, tells that to Queen Esther who informs King Ahasuerus of the plan. Bigthan and Teresh are then hanged from a tree.
The speech came a day after Netanyahu and his wife were questioned for several hours over suspicions that Shaul Elovitch, chief shareholder of telecommunications giant Bezeq, ordered the Walla news site, which he also owns, to grant fawning coverage to the Netanyahus in exchange for the prime minister’s advancement of regulations benefiting him. The case is the latest legal battle to embroil the Netanyahu and his wife, with the prime minister and his backers at times lashing out at police and others in the judiciary for being on a witch hunt against him.
Regev is currently the acting prime minister of Israel, filling in for Netanyahu who is in Washington for a week-long diplomatic visit during which he is scheduled to meet US President Donald Trump and speak at the AIPAC conference.
The minister also alluded to a scandal which involved leaked text messages appearing to show a prosecutor colluding with the judge presiding over remand hearings in the Bezeq corruption case, advising her to look surprised.
Had Bigthan and Teresh “had mobile phones at the time, they probably would text one another, ‘what do you say Bigthan, should we give him two more days, maybe three?’ and ‘it’s important for you to look surprised, Teresh, OK?'” Regev said.
The speech was criticized by political and public figures, with Yedioth, a leading daily, accusing her of “incitement” on its front page.
MK Tzipi Livni of the opposition Zionist Union party was quoted by the tabloid as accusing Netanyahu of being a “small-time politician,”
“A minister in Israel compares the devoted people who care about rule of law and try to clean Israel of corruption, to Bigthan and Teresh who were eventually hanged — and this is the minister Netanyahu appoints to replace him while he is away.”
MK Rachel Azaria of the Kulanu party, which is in Netanyahu’s ruling coalition, lambasted Regev in an interview with the Kan public broadcaster Sunday.
“What gives you the right to bash the gatekeepers? The people who do their work for all of us — police officers, judges and prosecutors,” Azaria said. “Admit that you are railing into them because they are legally prohibited from responding.”
Netanyahu defended Regev when asked about her statements before boarding the plane to the United States. “I haven’t heard such remarks,” he said. “I doubt there is any real intention behind them.”
Regev said Sunday that her words had been misunderstood and “distorted.”
“Again, part of the media interpreted my remarks yesterday in a distorted way,” she wrote on Facebook, insisting that she had merely stated the “basic rule in democracy that the rulers are the people, and the need for gatekeepers to conduct themselves in a democratic way.”
Regev said she “didn’t call for harming anyone. On the contrary — anyone who wants public servants to be trusted by the public and do their work faithfully, should make sure that their work is done fairly and without bias.”
On Friday, officials involved in the Bezeq corruption probe said that Netanyahu will be hard-pressed to explain away the “concrete” suspicions and “solid” evidence against him in that case, Hadashot TV news reported. They said suspicions against Netanyahu in the investigation are more serious than those ascribed to him in two previous cases, in which police have recommended that the prime minister be indicted for a series of serious corruption charges including bribery, fraud, and breach of trust.
In Case 1000, Netanyahu and his wife are suspected of receiving illicit gifts from billionaire benefactors, amounting to some NIS 1 million ($282,000) worth of cigars and champagne from the Israeli-born Hollywood producer Arnon Milchan and Australian resort owner James Packer in return for certain benefits.
Case 2000 involves a suspected illicit quid-pro-quo deal between Netanyahu and Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper publisher Arnon Mozes that would have seen the prime minister weaken a rival daily, the Sheldon Adelson-backed Israel Hayom, in return for more favorable coverage from Yedioth.
The prime minister has also been linked to another case, dubbed Case 3000, which involves suspicions that state officials were paid bribes to influence a decision to purchase four patrol boats and three Dolphin-class submarines costing a total of 2 billion euros from German shipbuilder ThyssenKrupp, despite opposition to the deal from the Defense Ministry. Netanyahu himself is expected to be called in to testify in the case, though he has so far not been named a suspect.
Netanyahu denies any wrongdoing in all the cases.
Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.