Coalition whip Miki Zohar was interrogated by the police on Thursday on suspicion of extortion directed at Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit.
Zohar allgedly threatened Mendelblit in October, saying that if the attorney general did not resign from his position and drop the three pending corruption indictments against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, incriminating recordings of Mendelblit would be leaked to the public.
The police interrogation of Zohar was authorized by the state prosecutor's office. Following his questioning, Zohar was released without any limitations.
Zohar, who is a member of Netanyahu's Likud party, made the purported threat in an interview with 103FM radio. The comments followed a report by Channel 12 News that featured recordings of telephone conversations dating back about five years between Mendelblit and Efraim Nave, who headed the Israel Bar Association at the time. In the recordings, Mendelblit is heard railing against then-State Prosecutor Shai Nitzan for dragging his feet in clearing Mendelblit of allegations of wrongdoing prior to his appointment as attorney general.
“It’s only a small portion that has been disclosed, and I promise you that other things will be revealed shortly," Zohar said in the radio interview. "There will be an earthquake here. Avichai Mendelblit will have no alternative but to step down from his position and to quash the indictments against Netanyahu.” Asked whether he was making a threat, Zohar replied: “No, it’s a promise.”
The attorney general's office responded to Zohar's statements by saying that "threats won't deter the attorney general from doing his job. The attorney general has worked fearlessly and in accordance with the proper considerations throughout his tenure, and he will continue to do so."
On Thursday, Zohar shared on Facebook that he had been questioned by the police. "I was called in for a police interrogation regarding Mendelblit," he wrote, calling it a "sad day for our democracy."
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"I won't hide the fact that I was surprised, especially given the fact that this is an investigation to silence [me] based on an opinion I expressed during a radio interview," Zohar added, and alleged that the investigation was opened to "prevent me from criticizing Mendelblit's conduct."
Public Security Minister Amir Ohana, a Likud cabinet minister who is responsible for the police, slammed the police over the investigation of Zohar. "This is proof of the poor standards of the police, the attorney general and state prosecutor's office, who have carried out an interrogation over a poorly worded (and later clarified!) statement in a radio interview," Ohana said. "It's simply shameful."
With regard to the interrogation of Zohar, the police said in a statement that, "The Israel Police are conducting an investigation into suspicions of extortion, and in this context, an elected official was questioned today. The investigation is being carried out with the authorization and involvement of the state prosecutor's office."
Although public figures are typically interrogated by a specially designated team of investigators in Lahav 433, the Israel Police’s anti-corruption unit, Zohar was interrogated by central district police investigators at the direction of the state prosecutor. Zohar was unconditionally released following the interrogation.
Knesset Speaker Yariv Levin of Likud responded to the investigation by saying that he “cannot accept a situation in which a Knesset member is questioned over his remarks made in his public capacity.”
According to Levin, whereas before, defamation lawsuits for large sums were filed against individuals to deter them from speaking publicly, the Zohar investigation constitutes a new strategy: the use of investigations aimed at deterring public figures from freely stating their positions.
Levin emphasized that the immunity granted to Knesset members is designed precisely “to ensure that they can criticize government branches and express their positions without fear.” He noted that “The power in the hands of the law enforcement system is huge” and that it must be used with caution, and “proportionately.” He characterized the use of this power for this investigation as “evidence of seriously impaired judgment” and a failure to appreciate the limits of such power.
He called on all Knesset faction leaders – irrespective of their political affiliation – to “unite in demanding a halt to the investigation and respect for the Knesset members' authority and their capacity to do their jobs.”