Likud lawmaker Miki Zohar, a close ally of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, was questioned by police Thursday on suspicion of extortion following a threat he made last month toward Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit.
The development drew a fierce backlash by Netanyahu backers against the law enforcement and justice community, including from police minister Amir Ohana, who derided the interrogation as “shameful.”
Mandelblit has faced intense pressure from Netanyahu backers due to his decision to charge the premier with bribery and other corruption charges in three criminal cases.
In mid-October, Channel 12 news aired taped phone conversations in which Mandelblit is heard complaining bitterly about Shai Nitzan, the state attorney at the time, for failing to close a criminal case against him.
A day later, Zohar called for Mandelblit’s resignation in a radio interview and warned that if he didn’t resign, more damaging recordings could be published.
The open case against Mandelblit has been used as ammunition against him by associates of Netanyahu who have sought to discredit the state prosecution as it proceeds with corruption charges against the premier.
The release of the tapes by Channel 12 was seen by allies of Netanyahu as supporting an unsubstantiated conspiracy theory that the attorney general had been blackmailed by the state attorney, prosecutors and police into filing the charges as part of a “witch hunt” aimed at ousting the premier.
The recordings, while highlighting a beef between Mandelblit and Nitzan years before the Netanyahu investigations began, did not provide evidence for such blackmail.
Zohar at the time told Radio 103FM: “I can guarantee that more things will be revealed soon. If he doesn’t resign, it will be an earthquake. There will be no choice for Mandelblit but to resign and rescind the indictments against Netanyahu.”
He refused to detail the additional material, but said there were more recorded conversations and that Nitzan was sitting on information that could “put Mandelblit behind bars.”
The threat made by Zohar was condemned at the time by Netanyahu and by Benny Gantz’s Blue and White party, as well as by Mandelblit.
A lawyer, Gonen Ben Yitzhak, had filed a police complaint against Zohar following the remark, alleging that he was blackmailing Mandelblit and obstructing justice. Mandelblit had said a member of the state prosecution would deal with the complaint in his stead due to conflict of interest.
On Thursday the Israel Police said in a statement that an unnamed senior public official had been interrogated on suspicion of extortion, adding that the state prosecution had authorized the questioning.
Zohar quickly confirmed in a Facebook post that he was the public official, charging that “this is a sad day for our democracy.”
“This is an interrogation meant to silence me, based on an opinion expressed in a radio interview,” Zohar wrote, claiming that the “absurd” investigation constituted political persecution and attempted silencing of the entire right wing by a corrupt judiciary.
“I knew that as a right-winger fighting for our truth, I could pay a price, but I didn’t imagine how far they would go in trying to intimidate me,” he wrote. He alleged that the decision to investigate him would be “devastating for the law enforcement system and could even lead to the complete loss of public trust, which is already at a historic low.”
Within minutes, many other right-wing ministers and lawmakers echoed Zohar’s sentiment.
“Summoning MK Zohar for criminal investigation following remarks in a radio interview crosses all the red lines regarding parliamentary immunity and freedom of speech of Knesset members,” said Likud Minister Ze’ev Elkin. “His wording can be challenged and Zohar has apologized, but a criminal investigation? Whoever approved this investigation seriously hurt our democracy.”
Public Security Minister Amir Ohana, who oversees police, called it “shameful” and said it reflects poorly on the Israel Police.
Outside Likud ranks, Yamina MK Bezalel Smotrich also joined the criticism, focusing it on Mandelblit even though the attorney general had recused himself from dealing with the case against Zohar.
“Mandelblit today crossed a clear red line that brings Israel closer to a dangerous judicial dictatorship, and he must go home immediately,” Smotrich said, calling on the government to “completely stop cooperating with him, not summon him to any meeting and replace him with someone who knows the job better.”
However, the Movement for Quality Government in Israel welcomed the interrogation.
The watchdog said that “such a direct threat, live on air, did not leave any alternative but to open an investigation. We back the law enforcement system in the struggle for our elected officials’ integrity.”
Mandelblit — a Netanyahu appointee and his former chief of staff and close ally — in January indicted the premier on bribery, fraud and breach of trust charges for which the prime minister is currently on trial. Netanyahu denies any wrongdoing and he and his supporters allege a conspiracy by law enforcement and the media seeking to force him from power.