What happened: Israeli Justice Minister Amir Ohana broke a court-issued gag order surrounding Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s corruption cases during a Knesset speech yesterday, drawing fierce criticism from the Attorney General, State Prosecutor, and Police. Ohana, a Likud MK, claimed that the police “extorted” a key state’s witness against Netanyahu during his interrogation by threatening to use an extramarital affair against him.
- In his speech Ohana alleged that police brought in a young woman for questioning unrelated to the investigation that was rumoured to have had a relationship with Nir Hefetz, a former Netanyahu aide who subsequently signed a cooperation agreement with prosecutors. Because he made the speech in the Knesset, Ohana will be immune from any legal action that would otherwise have resulted if he had made the comments elsewhere.
- In a scathing response, Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit and State Prosecutor Shai Nitzan said Ohana’s comments were an attempt to “mislead the public” and that the allegations “misrepresent the facts and chronology of events in the course of the investigation.” They also said the allegations likely came directly from Netanyahu’s lawyers.
- Hefetz’s lawyer blasted Ohana and said the justice minister seriously harmed his client’s privacy. Another source “close to Hefetz” also said there was “no connection” between the incident and Hefetz’s ultimate decision to become a state’s witness.
Context: Yesterday’s recriminations are just the latest in a string of incidents that have heightened tensions between criminal justice agencies and the government. The Attorney General is widely expected to issue his final decision on whether or not to indict Netanyahu for bribery, fraud and breach of trust by the end of this month.
- To shore up his political and public position, Netanyahu and his allies have consistently attacked the police and state prosecutors, alleging hidden political bias and a “witch hunt” against the Prime Minister. They have also alleged severe interrogation methods by investigators that should, they argue, undermine the testimony of various state’s witnesses.
- Netanyahu attempted to distance himself slightly from Ohana’s remarks, saying: “Though the case of the extortion of state’s witness Nir Hefetz is extremely serious and should worry every citizen, a court-imposed gag order should be respected.”
Looking ahead: It’s unlikely that these increasingly sharp clashes, unprecedented in Israeli history, will impact Netanyahu’s legal position. The Attorney General and State Prosecutor have consistently backed the process by which the investigations were conducted as well as the evidence collected. On the other hand, the constant refrain about underhanded efforts seem to be gaining some public traction – and may succeed in diluting the political impact of the final decision by the Attorney General to indict Netanyahu.