Lapid: Netanyahu attempting to spark a civil war
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Lapid: Netanyahu attempting to spark a civil war

Opposition leader lambastes premier over his address before start of criminal trial, assails his former ally Gantz for keeping silent

Raoul Wootliff is the The Times of Israel's political correspondent.

Yesh Atid-Telem leader Yair Lapid gives a statement to the press on April 21, 2020. (Elad Guttman/Yesh Atid-Telem)
Yesh Atid-Telem leader Yair Lapid gives a statement to the press on April 21, 2020. (Elad Guttman/Yesh Atid-Telem)

Opposition leader Yair Lapid on Monday accused Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of attempting to start a civil war and carry out a coup, while railing against the prime minister’s bashing of the judicial system as his corruption trial opened Sunday.

“Israel changed yesterday. It won’t be the same. A serving prime minister was put on trial. His trial didn’t start with a presentation of the evidence, it started with wild incitement against the rule of law, against the courts… He knows it will end in violence but he doesn’t care,” Lapid told his Yesh Atid-Telem faction at the Knesset.

Flanked by ministers and lawmakers from his Likud party, Netanyahu delivered lengthy televised remarks before the start of the hearing at the Jerusalem District Court Sunday, ripping into police and prosecutors as he became the first Israeli premier to stand trial on criminal charges while in office. He also declared that all his right-wing supporters were on trial along with him.

“Elements in the police and State Attorney’s Office banded together with left-wing journalists… to fabricate baseless cases against me,” the prime minister charged. “The goal is to oust a strong right-wing prime minister and to banish the right-wing camp from leadership of the country for many years.”

“I’m not a poodle… and therefore they need to remove me by any means,” said Netanyahu, who faces charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, surrounded by Likud lawmakers, gives a televised statement before the start of his corruption trial at the Jerusalem District Court on May 24, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Lapid lambasted Netanyahu for the speech, describing it as leading the country to civil war.

“There was a coup attempt yesterday and it was led by Netanyahu. He tried to attack the police, the prosecution, the courts, the media. He tried to threaten his judges,” the new opposition leader charged.

“The moment he drags his ministers to the court with him, incites his followers, tries to lead us toward a civil war, then he can’t be allowed to remain in office,” Lapid said.

Netanyahu also blasted the police who led the probes into him, saying officers made up claims that he had sent private sleuths to track investigators.

The premier claimed “the band of anyone-but-Bibi” sought to interfere in two of the three elections over the past year in a bid to hurt Likud at the polls. He pointed to the police recommendation that he be charged ahead of the April 2019 elections and Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit’s decision to indict him before the latest elections in March.

“They did everything so I wouldn’t stand here today as prime minister,” Netanyahu said.

As he arrived at court, Netanyahu supporters demonstrated outside the building against the judicial system, while opponents of the premier rallied outside his official Jerusalem residence to call on him to resign over the charges against him.

Also laying into he former political partners, the Yesh Atid chair said that Blue and White’s Benny Gantz and Gabi Ashkenazi, the defense and foreign ministers, “chose the right to remain silent” in response to Netanyahu’s remarks.

“After all their promises to protect the justice system, Gantz instructed his people not to attack Netanyahu, to speak about him softly and as quietly as possible,” he said, referring to television reports on Sunday night.

Benny Gantz, head of Blue and White party and MK Gabi Ashkenazi at an election campaign event ahead of the coming Israeli elections, in Kfar Saba on Feb 12, 2020. (Gili Yaari / Flash90)

Gantz had campaigned for over a year — and three elections — for an end to Netanyahu’s tenure over the criminal charges he faces, but on Sunday issued an extremely toned-down statement.

“Just like every citizen, the prime minister too has the presumption of innocence, and I am sure that the justice system will give him a fair trial,” Gantz tweeted.

“I again emphasize that my colleagues and I have full faith in the justice system and law enforcement,” he added. “At this time, perhaps more than ever, as a state and a society, we must seek unity and reconciliation, for the sake of the country and all of its citizens.”

Addressing Gantz and Ashkenazi directly, Lapid said, “A week ago when you entered the government you said, ‘we won’t accept attacks on the rule of law.’ There is an attack on the rule of law. A violent, head-on attack. What are you planning to do about it? Are there any principles you are willing to fight for?”

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