Several of embattled Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s political allies closed ranks in his defense on Thursday, backing his claim that police and state prosecutors were attempting a “coup” to remove him from power using false corruption charges.
A number of lawmakers, however, remained silent or waited hours to come out in support of Netanyahu, in the latest sign that his hold over the Likud party may be slipping.
Netanyahu accused prosecutors and justice officials of a “tainted process” shortly after Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit announced he would charge the premier with criminal wrongdoing in three separate cases against him, including bribery in the far-reaching Bezeq corruption probe.
Despite overseeing the Justice Ministry which issued the charge sheet, Likud’s Amir Ohana indicated that he believed the prime minister was innocent of all charges.
“Benjamin Netanyahu is not a corrupt man,” Ohana said in a statement posted to Twitter.
“I’m proud to stand by him at this moment … and completely confident that the test of history will prove that to be the correct side to stand on.”
Ohana noted that other cases against politicians in the past had fallen apart and insisted only a court could find him guilty, but did not join Netanyahu’s attack on the judiciary and calls to “investigate the investigators, to investigate the prosecution that approves these tainted investigations.”
Other Likud minister, however, echoed the prime minister’s sentiments.
“We are being tested,” Tourism Minister Yariv Levin, Netanyahu’s coalition talks negotiator, said in a Facebook post.
“The state of Israel owes Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu a great debt. Netanyahu devoted his life to this country and to its defense. The injustice done to him tonight cries out to high heaven,” he declared.
Levin, an attorney and former deputy head of the Israel Bar Association, defended Netanyahu’s assertion that the investigations were “tainted.”
“These cases should not have been opened,” he said. “The entire process is invalidated, tainted to the core and prejudiced at all stages by enforcement that was selective and discriminatory in the extreme.”
He called on fellow Likud members “to come together. We will keep our ranks united and continue as one to fight for our principles and our truth, and we will win.”
Culture Minister Miri Regev defended Netanyahu’s “presumption of innocence until the court decides otherwise,” and said police and state prosecutors “cannot be immune from criticism and above the law.”
Likud MK Miki Zohar praised Netanyahu’s comments as “moving,” saying, “millions of people in this country were deeply moved by his words. I urge his haters to discover the truth and stop their hypocrisy: That there is one law for Netanyahu and the right and another for everyone else.”
Communications Minister David Amsalem, a Netanyahu ally, tweeted simply, “We won’t let the lie win!”
Environmental Protection Minister Ze’ev Elkin, a Netanyahu backer and coalition negotiator, said he “supports the prime minister at this difficult time. He doesn’t deserve to see the phrase ‘State of Israel v. Benjamin Netanyahu.’ I hope justice is done and the prime minister proves his innocence in court.”
Several dozen of the prime minister’s supporters also rallied outside his Netanyahu’s official residence in Jerusalem, facing off against a smaller crowd of people celebrating the charges against the premier and calling for him to resign.
Hours after Mandelblit and Netanyahu made their statements, many top Likud officials remained silent on the affair. These notably included Foreign Minister Israel Katz, Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan and former minister Gideon Sa’ar, who is seen as Netanyahu’s main challenger within the party.
Some party officials criticized Netanyahu, though none would speak on the record.
“We need to understand that the Netanyahu era is over and work toward change,” one senior Likud official told Channel 12, calling for Netanyahu’s ouster as party leader.
Netanyahu appears set to face a leadership challenge for the first time since 2014 if new elections are held, in the form of senior Likud lawmaker Gideon Sa’ar who announced his challenge to Netanyahu earlier this week.
Hebrew media on Thursday night said another unnamed Likud lawmaker was planning to throw their hat in the ring if the party goes to primaries.
In a statement, the ultra-Orthodox Shas party said that Netanyahu still enjoyed its support.
“We believe and trust that your innocence will be proven and justice will prevail,” the statement read, adding that the prime minister should be “strong and courageous.”
Mandelblit’s decision, announced earlier Thursday, marked the first time in Israel’s history that a serving prime minister faces criminal charges, casting a heavy shadow over Netanyahu, Israel’s longest-serving prime minister, and his ongoing attempts to remain in power.
The announcement did not include the official filing of an indictment, as the Knesset must first decide on lifting Netanyahu’s procedural immunity.
In an emotional address shortly after the charges were announced, Netanyahu railed against the justice system for what he termed an “attempted coup.”
“I deeply respect the justice system in Israel. But you have to be blind not to see that something bad is happening to police investigators and the prosecution. We’re seeing an attempted coup by the police with false accusations” against him, he accused.
Responding to the prime minister’s speech, Blue and White chief Benny Gantz said Netanyahu “proved he must leave his position and focus on his legal affairs.” He expressed full support for the justice system and said the evening’s main takeaway was “no coup,” but rather a case of Netanyahu “entrenching” himself in power.
Others outside of Likud also called for Netanyahu to resign, noting his own advice to then-prime minister Ehud Olmert when charges against him were announced in 2009.
According to the full indictment released by the Justice Ministry Thursday, Netanyahu will be charged with fraud and breach of trust in Cases 1000 and 2000, and bribery, fraud and breach of trust in Case 4000.
Mandelblit addressed the press in his office in the Justice Ministry in Jerusalem at 7:30 p.m. to formally announce the charges.
He called the decision “a difficult and sad day” and said his ruling was made “with a heavy heart but also without hesitation.
“Law enforcement isn’t optional. It’s not a question of politics. It’s a duty incumbent upon us…. We were not swayed by slander from all sides, and acted only to enforce the law,” he said, referring to criticism from Netanyahu supporters who have accused prosecutors of conducting a witch hunt to unseat the prime minister.
He called the accusations “dangerous” and said they were “playing with fire. It must stop. I call on everyone, and first and foremost the leaders of the state, you must distance yourself from discourse that threatens law enforcement officials. We’re not infallible or above criticism. But we acted without fear or prejudice, for the rule of law.”
In October, prosecutors and the prime minister’s legal team held several days of hearings in which Netanyahu’s attorneys sought to refute the allegations against him. The state prosecution said the premier’s defense had not managed to refute the charges.