Benny Gantz on Thursday called on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to resign, after the attorney general recommended indicting the premier for bribery, fraud and breach of trust in a series of corruption cases.
In a televised statement hours after Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit announced plans to indict Netanyahu, pending a hearing, Gantz said that being prime minister cannot be a “part-time job” and that Netanyahu should conduct his legal battle as a private citizen.
“Benjamin Netanyahu I appeal to you from here tonight… show national responsibility, and resign from your position,” Gantz urged. “If and when you can prove your innocence, you can return to public service with your head held high.”
Gantz, a former IDF chief whose centrist Blue and White party is in a close race with Netanyahu’s Likud party, said he would not sit in a coalition with Netanyahu if he was reelected in April.
“Tonight is a difficult night for Israelis,” Gantz said. “When the attorney general decides to file an indictment, pending a hearing, against a serving prime minister, it’s painful for every Israeli patriot.”
“There is no happiness in me, even as a political opponent,” Gantz said.
“I know Benjamin Netanyahu well, we worked shoulder to shoulder. I’ve seen him in good times and in bad times, and I know how much he loves this country,” Gantz went on. “But the Benjamin Netanyahu that I know wouldn’t drag the country to a situation in which it has a part-time prime minister.”
“Imagine our situation when a prime minister has to move from decisions about the fate of our sons to arguing with a state’s witness, whose dealings with his trial take up most of his day,” he said. “The State of Israel deserves better.”
Gantz also called on Netanyahu to stop attacking state institutions, such as police and prosecutors, who have investigated him over the last two years. He said he wished Netanyahu — who issued his own public statement a few minutes before Gantz — had responded to Mandelblit’s announcement with a “dignified speech that befits a prime minister, not a political speech that crosses red lines.” Instead, Gantz lamented, Netanyahu had responded in a way that did not befit his office, putting his personal interests ahead of those of the country.
“I expect from you to deal with your [legal] affairs as a private citizen, and wish you luck with that,” he said.
Gantz’s political partner, Yair Lapid, echoed the call for Netanyahu to step down, and also vowed the Blue and White party would not join a Netanyahu government.
“This is a sad day for the State of Israel,” Lapid said in a statement. “From the bottom of my heart, I hope he’s cleared of all charges.”
“And yet Netanyahu cannot continue to serve as prime minister. He knows that better than anyone. The prime minister is a symbol and we must not allow that symbol to be tarnishe,” he added.
“If Netanyahu loves the State of Israel as he always says he does, then he needs to do what’s best for the country: He needs to resign, immediately,” Lapid said. “It goes without saying that we will not sit in any government in which the prime minister has been indicted for such serious crimes.”
The final decision on whether to indict Netanyahu will only take place after a hearing, where the prime minister will be given the opportunity to defend himself. That process is expected to take many months and be completed long after the April 9 elections.
But the recommendations immediately cast a cloud over the campaign and Netanyahu’s future.
Appearing on national TV earlier, Netanyahu dismissed the allegations as an “unprecedented witch hunt” by political opponents intent on ousting him. He called the timing, just weeks before the election, “outrageous” and appeared emotional at times as he dismissed the charges as a “blood libel.” He vowed to debunk all allegations and said he would remain prime minister for “many years.”
“The main thing was to influence the elections, even if we know that this house of cards will completely collapse after the elections,” Netanyahu told voters of the attorney general’s decision on an indictment against him. “Don’t let this witch hunt affect you.”
Agencies and Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.