Netanyahu supporters rally against investigators in graft probes

Netanyahu supporters rally against investigators in graft probes

Demonstrators in Tel Aviv, Petah Tikva blast ‘persecution’ of PM by law enforcement

Supporters of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu demonstrate outside the Tel Aviv Museum on November 9, 2019. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)
Supporters of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu demonstrate outside the Tel Aviv Museum on November 9, 2019. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

Supporters of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu rallied in central Israel Saturday evening, accusing investigators of improper conduct in a series of corruption probes implicating the premier.

The demonstrations took outside place outside the Tel Aviv Museum and near Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit’s home in Petah Tikva, where protests both for and against Netanyahu have taken place regularly in recent years.

Over 1,000 people were at the Tel Aviv rally, according to the Ynet news site, among them pro-Netanyahu journalists and former Likud lawmakers.

Demonstrators waved flags of Netanyahu’s Likud party and help up signs reading “enough of the persecution” and calling for State Attorney Shai Nitzan to be investigated.

The protesters also chanted “Shai Nitzan is a criminal,” according to the Walla news site.

Supporters of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu demonstrate outside the Tel Aviv Museum on November 9, 2019. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

Netanyahu, who faces charges in three criminal cases, has alleged the investigations are an effort by the media, left-wing figures, prosecutors and law enforcement to remove him from office. He denies any wrongdoing.

This week’s rallies came as Netanyahu and his allies have ramped up criticism of investigators for alleged misconduct concerning state witness Nir Hefetz.

Hefetz is a former Netanyahu spokesman and confidant and a witness in Case 4000 — the most severe of the cases facing the premier — in which Netanyahu is suspected of pushing regulatory decisions benefiting the controlling shareholder of the Bezeq telecommunications group, Shaul Elovitch, in return for ongoing positive news coverage in the Walla news site, which is owned by Bezeq.

On Wednesday, Likud Justice Minister Amir Ohana gave a speech from the Knesset podium during which he railed against what he said was police misconduct in leaning on Hefetz to testify against Netanyahu, revealing details of alleged illegitimate pressure tactics used by investigators that had been sealed by a court.

Breaking a gag order, Ohana described how investigators called in a woman who was not directly connected to Case 4000 for questioning, asked her “invasive and intrusive” questions about her relationship with Hefetz, then engineered an “accidental” meeting between the woman and Hefetz in the hallway.

Amir Ohana speaking in the Knesset on November 6, 2019. (Adina Wellman / Knesset spokespersons office)

When the two met, investigators allegedly told Hefetz, according to Ohana, that “we know everything and will drop a bomb on your family.”

Ohana also claimed that Hefetz changed his testimony to match the prosecution’s versions of events after an undocumented conversation with an interrogator.

Law enforcement authorities have denied the claims of wrongdoing and a statement Wednesday by Mandelblit and Nitzan accused Ohana of misleading the public.

Vague claims about the investigators’ conduct were first reported Tuesday by Channel 12 television news, but details could not be reported by the outlet due to the court-imposed gag order.

Those details became permissible for reporting when Ohana made his comments in the Knesset Wednesday, as Israel’s Basic Laws stipulate that all Knesset plenum debates must be open to the public and their content permitted for publication.

Israeli parliamentarians enjoy immunity from some types of prosecution, and lawmakers in the past have used the Knesset podium to reveal information about issues and subjects under gag order.

The immunity also does not cover civil suits and Ohana and Netanyahu’s son Yair could potentially be sued by Hefetz for slander or libel. Hebrew media reported Thursday that Hefetz was threatening to sue Ohana and Yair Netanyahu, who tweeted what Ohana had said, as well as additional allegations still under gag order, shortly after the speech. Yair Netanyahu later deleted the tweet.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, center, and Nir Hefetz, left, arrive at the weekly cabinet meeting held in the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem, December 13, 2009. (Yossi Zamir/Flash90)

Also this week, Channel 13 news reported on details of Whatsapp messages between Walla editor Ilan Yeshua and Hefetz, and calls between Yeshua and Elovitch, as well as Elovitch’s wife Iris, that showed the site tailoring its reporting to be as palatable to Netanyahu and his wife Sara as possible. The reports showed Hefetz and the Elovitches directly intervening on editorial decisions at the paper and the hiring of journalists in order to be as forgiving as possible toward the prime minister and his family.

Hefetz turned state witness after being arrested in 2018 and questioned over a two-week period, and is believed to have provided prosecutors with key information about the period when he served as an informal interlocutor between Netanyahu and Elovitch and between Netanyahu and Walla.

Mandelblit, who served as Netanyahu’s cabinet secretary and was appointed by him to the attorney general post in 2016, is widely believed to be planning to formally indict the prime minister on corruption charges in three separate cases in the coming weeks.

In a draft charge sheet issued in February, Mandelblit outlined charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust against the premier in Case 4000, and fraud and breach of trust in two other cases, dubbed by police as Case 1000 and Case 2000.

In Case 1000, Netanyahu is suspected of illicitly receiving gifts such as champagne, cigars, and jewelry valued at some NIS 700,000 ($201,000) from billionaire benefactors Arnon Milchan and James Packer, and allegedly reciprocating in Milchan’s case with various forms of assistance.

In Case 2000, Netanyahu is accused of agreeing with Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper publisher Arnon Mozes to weaken a rival daily in return for more favorable coverage from Yedioth. The agreement was never implemented.

Netanyahu’s legal woes come as he is fighting for his political survival, with the country’s unprecedented second election of the year again failing to provide him with a clear victory. In the September election, neither Netanyahu nor his chief challenger, Benny Gantz, secured the required parliamentary majority to form a new government. Both men have expressed support for a unity government as a way out of the deadlock, but they remain far apart on who should lead it and what smaller parties would join them.

Israeli law requires cabinet ministers to step down if charged with a crime. But the law is vague for sitting prime ministers, meaning Netanyahu could theoretically remain in the post if he is indicted, though he would likely face calls to step aside.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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