Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Wednesday accused outgoing State Attorney Shai Nitzan of exploiting rape victims, in the wake of comments the top prosecutor made in a television interview pushing back on claims his office manufactured graft charges against the premier.
In an excerpt of the interview conducted to coincide with the end of his term this week, Nitzan criticized Netanyahu over his response to the investigations against him, saying that in a democratic state it was up to the legal system to decide whether a politician charged with wrongdoing was guilty or innocent.
“Let’s suppose there was a public figure, for example, who raped,” Nitzan told Channel 12 news. “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.”
Nitzan added: “In a modern-day democracy, the legal fate of a defendant is not decided at the ballot box.”
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 Israeli 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.
In the interview, which will be aired in full Friday, Nitzan dismissed claims made by Netanyahu that he and the state prosecution hierarchy were framing the premier.
“I organized the conversations between Netanyahu and [Yedioth Ahronoth publisher] Noni Mozes?” Nitzan asked rhetorically, referring to the talks that formed the basis of one of the cases involving the premier.
Switching to another case, Nitzan said he found one of the defenses offered for Netanyahu unconvincing.
“I don’t understand this ‘he only smoked a few cigars,’ argument. The indictment filed against Netanyahu talks about NIS 700,000 (some $350,000) worth of cigars,” he said.
Nitzan has come under fire by Netanyahu and his allies throughout the investigation of the prime minister in three corruption probes, and particularly since Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit announced criminal charges — bribery, breach of trust and fraud — against the prime minister last month.
He 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.
Netanyahu has avoided claiming that Mandelblit himself is motivated by a leftist agenda (the religious Mandelblit was appointed by the premier and once served as cabinet secretary in the Likud-led government). Rather, he has sought to portray him as weak-willed, succumbing to intense pressure from agenda-driven prosecutors under him — claims that Mandelblit has rejected.
Nitzan — along with Mandelblit and the lead prosecutor in the cases, Liat Ben-Ari — have all been receiving additional police protection over the past year due to threats from supporters of the prime minister.
Nitzan will step down from his post at the end of the week after completing his six-year term. The issue of a replacement has already set Mandelblit and Justice Minister 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.