Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Monday lashed out at state prosecutors after the first day of testimony in his corruption trial, accusing them of “hypocrisy” and of leading a “witch hunt” against him. He said the investigation and prosecution constitute an effort by police and prosecutors to “trample democracy” in Israel and subvert the will of the electorate.
He singled out lead prosecutor Liar Ben-Ari, who opened the prosecution case at Monday’s Jerusalem District Court hearing, claiming that while she had accused him in court of abuse of power, it was her prosecution team that had acted illegally.
In response, senior Justice Ministry and police officials said Netanyahu’s claims were false, accused him of seeking to intimidate the court, and warned his allegations placed prosecutors in danger.
Channel 13 on Monday night quoted police sources saying that security precautions already in place for Ben-Ari, who was specifically targeted in Netanyahu’s speech, would be reviewed in the wake of his comments.
Netanyahu appeared for the opening statements at the Jerusalem District Court, but was granted permission to leave before the first witness testified. The premier is on trial for fraud and breach of trust in three cases, and also faces a bribery charge in one of them. He denies wrongdoing and regularly claims without evidence that the charges were fabricated in order to remove him from power.
In a televised speech at his official residence, Netanyahu specifically took aim at lead prosecutor Ben-Ari’s charge, in her opening arguments, that the prime minister had abused his powers.
“Today I heard highfalutin words [from Ben-Ari] on abuse of power. What hypocrisy. The entire process against me was marked by the heavy-handed abuse of the powers of… the prosecution,” Netanyahu said.
“The prosecution opened the investigations against the prime minister of Israel illegally… in breach of a Basic Law,” he added.
The prime minister was referring to Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit’s apparent failure to formally approve the probe in writing. During a February hearing, the court chided Mandelblit for the oversight, but dismissed a demand by Netanyahu’s lawyers to throw out the criminal indictments against the prime minister because of this.
“It’s a witch hunt. They didn’t investigate a crime, they didn’t look for a crime; they hunted for a man, they hunted me,” Netanyahu continued.
He claimed investigators ignored testimony that did not match their thesis, leaked material and extorted witnesses.
He said the October 2019 pre-indictment hearing process at which his lawyers tried to dissuade the attorney general from proceeding with the charges was a “foregone conclusion” and a “show,” even though his attorneys at the time said the process had been serious and that state prosecutors were attentive and listened at length to the defense arguments.
“This is how they try to overthrow a powerful prime minister from the right. This is what an attempted coup looks like,” the prime minister said. “What is happening is an effort to trample democracy, over and over again. They are attempting to annul the will of the electorate.”
In response, senior Justice Ministry officials, in a statement quoted by Channel 13 news, said that Netanyahu’s focused attack on Ben-Ari, who already “faces threats and has to be protected, is utterly irresponsible. Moreover, to make a speech like this immediately after the testimony of the first witness marks an effort to convey a very worrying message of intimidation against the court.”
The same TV station quoted police sources saying: “Netanyahu’s speech targeted and personally endangered the state prosecutors. This was a very sharply worded speech that could cause extremists who hear this mantra over and again to take action and harm the prosecutors.”
The prime minister’s remarks came as party leaders met with President Reuven Rivlin to recommend who should form a government after the March 23 elections. The national vote, the fourth in two years, did not produce a clear winner.
Blue and White leader Benny Gantz said Netanyahu’s speech showed he was not fit to continue as prime minister.
“He is the one who is trying to carry out a government coup. His attack against the State Attorney’s Office was intended for one purpose — to delegitimize the outcome of the trial and attempt to gain unlimited power. I call on all factions to unite and find a way to replace him,” Gantz tweeted.
During Monday’s hearing, the judges heard testimony from Ilan Yeshua, the former CEO of the Walla news site, who recounted in detail how he was instructed by his bosses and people close to Netanyahu to skew the site toward positive coverage of the premier and criticism of his rivals — and said those instructions were part of a quid pro quo deal between Netanyahu and the site’s owners.
The allegation goes to the heart of the most serious of the three cases against Netanyahu, Case 4000, in which he also is charged with bribery. Prosecutors allege the favorable coverage was part of a quid pro quo between Netanyahu and then-Walla-owner Shaul Elovitch, and was offered in exchange for regulatory favors for the Bezeq telecommunications company, which Elovitch also owned.
Beyond the Walla case, Netanyahu faces charges of fraud and breach of trust in Case 1000 and in Case 2000.
Case 1000 involves suspicions that Netanyahu illicitly accepted some $200,000 in gifts such as cigars and champagne from two billionaires — Hollywood-based Israeli movie mogul Arnon Milchan and Australian magnate James Packer.
In Case 2000, Netanyahu is accused of attempting to reach a quid pro quo with Yedioth Ahronoth publisher Arnon Mozes for positive media coverage in exchange for legislation weakening rival newspaper Israel Hayom. Mozes was charged with bribery in the case.