Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Sunday questioned the police’s conduct in confiscating the cellphones of his aides, who have been accused of hounding a state’s witness.
Netanyahu also came out in defense of his justice minister, Amir Ohana, who last week launched a blistering attack on the state prosecution and judiciary that was subsequently condemned by the Supreme Court president and attorney general.
Netanyahu on Sunday said he was surprised by the manner in which police seized his aides’ phones, over suspicions that they had harassed a state witness in a corruption case against the prime minister.
“Many feel that something here is not okay,” he said at the Christian media summit in Jerusalem. The event took place at the Friends of Zion museum, which on that day opened its new media center geared to help Israel combat efforts to boycott the Jewish state.
Ofer Golan — a Likud campaign manager and Netanyahu family spokesman — and party spokesman Jonatan Urich are suspected of sending a van to blast slogans through a loudspeaker outside the home of Shlomo Filber, a former confidant of the prime minister, who led the ruling Likud party’s campaign in the 2015 elections, but later testified against the premier in an alleged bribery case.
The prime minister also said Sunday no state institution was above reproach, referring to Ohana’s rebuke of prosecutors and the judiciary.
“In a democracy, there is no institute that is immune to criticism,” said Netanyahu. “We are a free country. Criticism is for all.”
“We must fix these shortcomings. It isn’t against the legal system, but rather in favor of it,” added Netanyahu, referring to “foreign considerations,” alleged attempts to “cook up” criminal allegations, and “tendentious and illegal” leaks to the media from police questioning.
Ohana, a member of Netanyahu’s Likud party, accused state prosecutors operating under his purview of engaging in a blind persecution of public officials they feel threaten their standing, all while being supported by a “cult” of fawning reporters.
Pushing back, Supreme Court Chief Justice Esther Hayut on Wednesday warned against “unprecedented” efforts to politicize Israel’s judicial system.
Netanyahu’s aides Golan and Urich have thus far been suspected of harassing a witness, a criminal offense carrying a punishment of up to three years in prison. According to Army Radio, police have upgraded the suspicion to intimidation of a witness, an offense punishable by a seven-year prison sentence. If the intimidation was carried out by means of fraud, misdirection, force, threats or offering gifts in return, the punishment could potentially reach nine years.
Urich and Golan on Friday asked Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit to drop the investigation, citing a “string of illegal failures” by police and state prosecutors. They also filed a complaint against the investigation with the Jerusalem District Court over a police search of their cellphones, according to reports in Hebrew-language media.
A statement attributed to Urich and Golan by Army Radio said that “the court determined that there were flaws in the investigation. It would have been appropriate if authorities announced they were stopping the investigation in light of the court remarks, and closing the case into all those involved.”
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.
He was then director-general of the Communications Ministry, which Netanyahu headed as minister during the period under scrutiny by prosecutors. He was arrested and questioned over his involvement in the case before turning state’s witness.
In their letter on Friday to Mandelblit, Golan and Urich said any material removed from their phones was illegally obtained, and should be excluded from the evidence.
The pair filed an official complaint with the Justice Ministry’s Police Internal Investigations Department on Wednesday and Thursday over the phone searches, alleging that Lahav 433 investigators carried out “illegal acts” during the investigation.
On Wednesday, the Tel Aviv Magistrate’s Court approved limited police searches of the aides’ phones but ordered them conducted under close judicial supervision.
Mandelblit had earlier asked police to address claims that investigators had overstepped their authority in searching the phones 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.
In addition to Case 4000, in which Netanyahu is suspected of bribery, fraud and breach of trust, he is also suspected of the latter two offenses in two other cases against him. Mandelblit is expected to decide by the end of the year whether to press charges against Netanyahu.
Netanyahu, who denies any wrongdoing, has repeatedly claimed that he is the victim of a witch hunt by the media, the left, police, and the state prosecution, designed to oust him from power.