Lapid: Netanyahu is running to avoid going to prison, plans to shut down probes
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Centrist leader tells the PM: 'It’s time for you to go home'

Lapid: Netanyahu is running to avoid going to prison, plans to shut down probes

Yesh Atid leader says PM wants elections to focus on his legal woes so he can pass laws that ‘will stop him being investigated’

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

Yesh Atid chairman Yair Lapid speaks during an event hosted by the Movement for the Quality of Government, in Modi'in, on February 4, 2019. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)
Yesh Atid chairman Yair Lapid speaks during an event hosted by the Movement for the Quality of Government, in Modi'in, on February 4, 2019. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid stepped up his attacks on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Sunday, saying that the premier wants the elections to focus on the criminal investigations against him so that he can shut them down after the national ballot and save himself from prison.

“He wants elections on investigations because if he wins, he believes he’ll have a mandate to shut down the investigations,” Lapid said of the prime minister’s campaign, which has so far largely focused on refuting the allegations, in an address to the Movement for Quality Government’s anti-corruption conference in Modiin.

Police have recommended Netanyahu stand trial for bribery in three separate corruption cases. Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit is currently reviewing the material and is reportedly set to announce a decision this month, but final charges would only be filed after a hearing procedure, which could take up to a year.

In the meantime, Lapid charged, a “panicking” Netanyahu is trying to intimidate Mandelblit into dropping the charges altogether. “Every single day, using every tool at his disposal. Using the full force of the government. Netanyahu’s social networks, his loyal Knesset members, his media outlets. He opened a TV station. All taking aim at the attorney general. That’s the real pressure. That’s the real attempt to intimidate the judicial system,” he said.

An ultra-Orthodox man looks on, as workers hang a Likud campaign poster featuring Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the entrance to Jerusalem on March 11, 2015. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90/File)

Netanyahu denies any wrongdoing, and has claimed the investigations are part of a political vendetta and witch hunt, aimed to oust him, involving the political left, the media and the police.

“He tried to intimidate me too, but found someone who stood up to him,” Lapid continued to applause from the crowd.

Lapid has stated that he will not join a Netanyahu-led government if the attorney general announces an intention to indict the prime minister, even before the hearing process has been completed.

Netanyahu, however, has vowed not to step down if Mandelblit announces that he intends to indict him, pending a hearing, in any of the cases against him, asserting that the law does not require him to do so. Judicial officials have anonymously said that Netanyahu would have a “problem” if he sought to stay in office were a formal, final indictment subsequently filed at the completion of the hearing process.

Lapid said Netanyahu wants to remain prime minister “because power gives him the ability to save himself. From his perspective, if he isn’t in power, he’ll end up in prison.”

Citing a series of laws that Likud lawmakers have attempted to pass in the last year that could have saved Netanyahu from prosecution, the Yesh Atid leader claimed that if he retains the premiership, he will move ahead with the controversial legislation, “which will stop him being investigated.”

Lapid also accused Netanyahu of focusing on his legal woes, because if the elections “will be about anything else, he’ll lose.”

Yesh Atid chairman Yair Lapid speaks during an event hosted by the Movement for the Quality of Government, in Modi’in on February 4, 2019. (Movement for the Quality of Government)

In a combative tone, Lapid vowed, “These elections can’t be about Netanyahu’s investigations. That’s what he wants. We can’t let him have his way. These elections are about our lives. About the queues in the emergency rooms. About the cost of living.”

That is “what really matters. Not Netanyahu, not Gantz, not me,” Lapid added, name dropping the Israel Resilience chair, who has risen in the polls to replace Yesh Atid as the potential second-largest party.

Lapid finished his speech with a direct message to Netanayhu: “This country is more important than you. Our children are important than you. It’s time for you to go home. It’s time for change.”

Hitting back at the claims, Netanyahu’s Likud party said, “Before Lapid preaches morality, he should explain to the public what he talked to [Yedioth Aharnototh publisher] Noni Mozes about in dozens of secret meetings in a businessman’s hideout in Savyon, and why he erased the meetings from his diary.”

Mozes was investigated by police in Case 2000, one of the three probes against Netanyahu, which examined an alleged clandestine quid-pro-quo deal in which the Israeli leader was said to have promised Mozes he would hobble Yedioth’s main commercial rival, the freebie Israel Hayom, in exchange for friendlier coverage from Yedioth. No such deal was ever implemented.

Publisher and owner of Yedioth Aharonoth newspaper Arnon “Noni” Mozes arrives for questioning at the Lahav 433 investigation unit in Lod on January 17, 2017. (Roy Alima/Flash90)

Netanyahu has repeatedly turned the accusation against Lapid, saying that the Yesh Atid leader, and not himself, made an illicit deal with Mozes by agreeing to advance a law that would have shuttered Israel Hayom.

Yesh Atid has acknowledged that Lapid had met with Mozes, but dismisses the notion that such meetings were out of the ordinary.

In the second case against Netanyahu, Case 1000, he is suspected of receiving benefits and gifts worth about NIS 1 million ($282,000) from billionaire benefactors, including Israeli Hollywood producer Arnon Milchan, in exchange for assistance on various issues.

The third and potentially most severe, Case 4000, involves suspicions Netanyahu is suspected of having advanced regulatory decisions as communications minister and prime minister from 2015 to 2017 that benefited Shaul Elovitch, the controlling shareholder in Bezeq, the country’s largest telecommunications firm, in exchange for positive coverage from Elovitch’s Walla news site.

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