JERUSALEM—A top aide to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu threatened the attorney general on Wednesday—the same day that an apparent Bibi supporter attacked daily newspaper Haaretz, a mainstay of liberal Israeli journalism—as the country appeared to careen from start-up nation to mafia state.
Miki Zohar, Netanyahu’s coalition whip and one of the men closest to the prime minister, threatened to release incriminating data about Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit, the man who indicted Netanyahu last November, if he doesn’t quit and cancel Netanyahu’s trial, which opened in May. Netanyahu stands accused of bribery, fraud, and breach of trust.
The threat comes on the heels of an embarrassing leak broadcast on Tuesday by right-wing political analyst Amit Segal, in which Mandelblit was heard in 2015 referring to then-State Prosecutor Shai Nitzan as a “maniac.”
“If Mandelblit does not immediately resign and revoke the indictments against Netanyahu, I promise more tapes will be leaked,” Zohar said in an interview on Tel Aviv’s Radio 103FM, apparently outing himself as the source of the dirty tricks broadcast by Segal.
“There is another criminal story about Mandelblit that hasn’t yet seen the light of day,” Zohar continued.
Asked by the news anchor if he was threatening the attorney general, Zohar replied, “No, I’m not threatening—it’s a promise. But that’s what’s going to happen. If he doesn’t resign, there will be an earthquake here.”
Netanyahu immediately attempted to distance himself from Zohar’s eruption, which, if associated with the prime minister, could embroil him in accusations of extortion.
In a statement, his office said the threats “were made without the prime minister’s knowledge and he takes exception to them. The prime minister did not discuss the matter with Zohar. The prime minister has reservations about Zohar’s words and does not approve of them.”
In a second, tweeted statement, in his own voice, Netanyahu again denied any knowledge of the attempted blackmail. “As I said,” he repeated, Zohar’s statement “was unacceptable to me. I deeply object and it is good that Zohar made it clear that this was not his intention.”
Zohar also scrambled to protect Netanyahu, whose trial is scheduled to resume in December.
“To banish any doubt, I would like to make it clear that I did not speak with the prime minister or any of his team before the interview… I had no intention of threatening anyone. Even if my words were understood differently, I would like to clarify again that I had no intention or desire to make any threat against the Attorney General.”
Mandelblit’s office responded sharply, saying that “threats won’t deter the attorney general from doing his job… Any attempt to intimidate him by threatening to reveal slanderous materials will fail.”
Nonetheless, some of Netanyahu’s men could not resist gloating about the smear against the attorney general, who is viewed as a mortal enemy among Bibi’s allies. Interior Security Minister Amir Ohana, a close ally of Netanyahu, could not resist tweeting “I told you so.”
Two members of the Likud, Netanyahu’s political party, also filed formal police complaints against the attorney general on Wednesday.
The same day, a man whom police later identified as a known burglar walked into the Haaretz building late in the morning and vandalized the building’s main electrical network, disrupting the paper’s website for several hours.
The man, 41, from the Tel Aviv suburb of Ramat Gan, quickly left the building, but waited by the entrance until he caught sight of investigative reporter Gidi Weitz, and, in what Haaretz called “a tirade,” screamed, “What do you want from Bibi? Where is your car? Do you have a car here?”
The man, who has not been named, was captured hours later and will be arraigned on Thursday.
Even before Netanyahu’s indictment, the first for an Israeli prime minister, Weitz was best known for his uncompromising probes into Netanyahu’s alleged malfeasance.
His last major scoop, published in late September, revealed transcripts of the police interrogations of Netanyahu, and included the prime minister’s (apparently inadvertent) admission of alleged crimes, such as taking effective control of major media outlets while in office.
When a police investigator asked the prime minister how many “direct requests” he made to the owner of Walla, an Israeli news portal, asking him to post, delete, or change articles, Netanyahu responded, “I suppose there were a great many… Walla is hundreds of negative articles about me. Hundreds. So certainly there’s a reason to call every day.”
Police: Did you talk to him about appointments and firing journalists at Walla?
Netanyahu: I don’t remember specifically, but I do remember that there were conversations of that kind. I don’t deny them. It’s completely natural.
Police: In other words, you, communications minister and prime minister, talk to [Walla owner Shaul] Elovitch about firings and appointments at Walla?
Netanyahu: I try to persuade him.
Opposition Leader Yair Lapid condemned the Haaretz incident and linked it to Netanyahu’s prior calls for the arrests of journalists who cover his alleged crimes, saying it was nothing less than an “attempt to silence the free press by the incited supporters of a leader who sees democracy and free speech as a threat to the state.”
In a September editorial, Haaretz slammed Netanyahu’s attempt “to turn investigators into criminals.”
When indicted, Netanyahu denounced what he called an attempted coup against his rule, and said, “the time has come to investigate the investigators. The time has come to investigate the state prosecution.”
In an analysis posted late Wednesday, Weitz said that Zohar was “the person who most clearly expresses the mafioso culture that has taken over” in Netanyahu’s circle. The threat against Mandelblit, Weitz wrote, “demands an investigation into suspected extortion.”
For months, Israelis have been rattled by escalating violence directed at anti-Netanyahu protesters, whose ranks have been growing since the start of the coronavirus pandemic. Israel now has the unfortunate distinction of leading the world in new cases of COVID-19 per million inhabitants, and Netanyahu is widely blamed for the debacle.
The most recent demonstrations have been diminished and dispersed by a government decree banning political rallies further than half a mile from the protester’s domicile, but with the end of the emergency measure, which was described as an element of the country’s fight against the virus, a collective of anti-Netanyahu movements has announced a massive gathering in front of the prime minister’s official residence on Saturday night.
Between 10,000 to 20,000 people are expected to gather for the reunion rally, and protest leaders, concerned both by the police violence that has plagued previous demonstrations and by aggression on the part of pro-Netanyahu thugs, have demanded increased protection.
Days ahead of Saturday’s protest, two central Israel men were arrested and charged with attacking demonstrators. On Thursday, the police announced the arrest of a 20-year-old Jerusalem man suspected of attacking a journalist.
The Black Flags, one of the anti-Netanyahu movements, has called Zohar “the central nexus in Benjamin Netanyahu’s criminal organization, a mafia led by a defendant accused of bribery, fraud and breach of trust.”
Crime Minister, another group, laid the blame for the incident at Haaretz’s newsroom squarely on the prime minister’s shoulders. “Netanyahu has targeted the media, the left and protesters as enemies of the state, and as a result, bullies now set out every day to attack these targets. Miraculously, it has not yet cost human life.”