JERUSALEM — It took nearly four years for the Israeli government to apologize to a Bedouin family from the Negev desert after a relative whose car had fatally run over a police officer, and who was killed by police fire, was hastily and wrongly labeled a terrorist.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu finally addressed the injustice this week, publicly apologizing to the family of the killed man, Yakub Abu al-Qian. But his presentation outraged many current and former officials, who accused Mr. Netanyahu of cynically exploiting the tragic case as part of his broader campaign to discredit the law enforcement authorities and the judiciary before his corruption trial moves into a critical phase in the coming months.
The clash over the killing, in January 2017 in the Bedouin hamlet of Umm al-Hiran, was just the latest in an increasingly ugly showdown between Mr. Netanyahu and the law enforcement agencies, which he claims are trying to topple him.
“I express my apology to the al-Qian family, whose head, an Israeli citizen, was killed,” Mr. Netanyahu said on Tuesday. “They said he was a terrorist. Yesterday, it turned out that he was not a terrorist.”
The belated apology came a day after a television news report asserted that the police and the state attorney’s office had covered up the true — and accidental — circumstances of the deaths of Mr. al-Qian and the police officer in order to preserve the credibility of the police, and with it, the integrity of the criminal investigations against Mr. Netanyahu.
Mr. al-Qian’s family welcomed the apology but said that if it was sincere, he should come and see the family and pay them compensation.
“First of all, a little is better than nothing,” Salim Abu al-Qian, a brother-in-law and cousin of the dead man, said of the apology. “Of course, Netanyahu played this card for his own benefit,” he added in an interview, describing the prime minister as a canny politician.
The internal police investigations department, under the auspices of the Justice Ministry, carried out a preliminary investigation at the time, and the Shin Bet internal security agency also examined evidence at the scene. But in May 2018, the state attorney at the time determined that it was impossible to say definitively whether Mr. al-Qian had deliberately rammed his car into the police officer, Advanced Staff Sgt. Erez-Shaul Levi, or had lost control of the car after already being shot by police officers who had come on a pre-dawn raid to demolish part of the village.
The police commissioner at the time continued to insist that Mr. al-Qian was a terrorist. And the state attorney decided not to open any criminal investigation into the conduct of the police, on grounds that even if they had mistakenly shot Mr. al-Qian, they were operating based on their best understanding of the situation at the time.
But the television report, filled with convoluted twists and turns, asserted that the state attorney and other legal authorities had whitewashed police misconduct in that and another, unrelated case, preferring to preserve their internal working relations and to avoid giving Mr. Netanyahu any ammunition against them.
Many of the details of the television report have since been denied by the relevant authorities, including the former state attorney. Still, Mr. Netanyahu seized on it, saying it had “become clear that senior figures in the state attorney’s office and the police turned him into a terrorist in order to protect themselves and to hurt me.”
Avichai Mandelblit, the attorney general and another target of Mr. Netanyahu’s ire, denounced Mr. Netanyahu’s claims in a stinging statement on Wednesday. Mr. Mandelblit said there was no connection between the events at Umm al-Hiran, the subsequent investigation and Mr. Netanyahu, adding that any such allegations were “false, an invention out of thin air, whose entire purpose is to delegitimize the law enforcement system and its decisions regarding the prime minister.”
Mr. Netanyahu is on trial in three graft cases, charged with bribery, fraud and breach of trust. The trial is scheduled to move into high gear in January, with three court hearings a week. Mr. Netanyahu has denied all wrongdoing, and has accused the media, the police and the justice system of conspiring to carry out a witch hunt against him and his family. He has called for an investigation of his investigators.
Against the background of the escalating conflict between Mr. Netanyahu and Mr. Mandelblit, the Haaretz newspaper reported on Wednesday that Mr. Mandelblit’s team was holding consultations over whether Mr. Netanyahu should be declared incapacitated because of his attempts to undermine the cases against him. Mr. Mandelblit’s office said that he was not calling for Mr. Netanyahu to quit and that he would not comment on internal discussions.
The parents of Sergeant Levi, the dead police officer, have also denounced Mr. Netanyahu’s change of heart. Convinced that their son was the victim of a deliberate attack, they told Israeli news media that they were ashamed of Mr. Netanyahu, “who sacrificed our son on the altar of his own political interests.”
The evacuation of Umm al-Hiran came as part of a long land dispute between the Bedouins and the government, which wanted to raze the village to make way for a new town, Hiran, planned mainly for Jewish families.
The police had arrived early, and in force, that day in 2017. Mr. al-Qian, a math teacher in his 50s, was driving his car along a road on the edge of the village before the sun was up. Salim, his cousin, said he was the last person to speak with Mr. al-Qian on the phone, just a few minutes before he was killed.
“I told him they were coming to destroy houses,” the cousin said at the time. “He said he did not want any violence. I told him to come to our place.”
Footage shown on Israeli television that night appeared to show an officer opening fire at Mr. al-Qian’s vehicle before it picked up speed and crashed into a group of police officers down a steep incline.
Israeli police and government officials promptly declared it a deliberate car ramming and portrayed Mr. al-Qian as an Islamic extremist. But the police version of the events was immediately disputed by Mr. al-Qian’s relatives and human rights activists who had come to support the villagers.
Speaking by phone from the Negev on Thursday, Salim al-Qian said the apology was a start. But he said the family had been asking for more than three years for a special investigation of the episode. “We deserve the truth,” he said, “though we already knew it from the outset.”