Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid accused Benjamin Netanyahu and his associates on Wednesday of “talking like criminals” after they suggested he should not have cooperated with police in a case probing the prime minister for graft.
On Tuesday, reports emerged that Lapid was a key witness in a case involving bribery allegations against the prime minister and businessman Arnon Milchan.
Police recommended Tuesday that Netanyahu be indicted for a series of corruption charges including bribery, fraud and breach of trust.
Lapid — a former finance minister under Netanyahu and now his political rival — provided police with critical evidence that the prime minister had tried to push legislation to extend the period for which new immigrants and returning Israelis are exempt from declaring and paying tax on income earned overseas, a move which could have saved billionaire Hollywood movie producer Milchan millions of dollars.
Police believe that Netanyahu tried to get the law changed as a quid pro quo for hundreds of thousands of shekels worth of cigars, champagne and jewelry with which Milchan allegedly plied the prime minister and his wife Sara over many years.
Immediately after publication of the police recommendations, Lapid confirmed he had given testimony and said he had refused to give in to pressure to move the tax legislation forward.
Likud ministers and coalition chairman David Amsalem lost no time in castigating Lapid, calling the Yesh Atid leader a “loser” for having been sacked as finance minister by Netanyahu and — in the words of Amsalem — a “snitch.”
On Wednesday, Netanyahu lashed out at Lapid, “the same Lapid who vowed to topple me at any cost,” saying, “He is a good friend of Milchan — which isn’t a sin — but he is; he was employed by him.”
Netanyahu alleged that as finance minister, it was Lapid who discussed Milchan’s interests with the Israeli-born tycoon. “I get [indictment] recommendations, and Lapid gets applause,” he protested.
Hitting back, Lapid said in a video clip posted on Twitter, “I heard the prime minister and the group surrounding him, including the coalition chairman and ministers, who dared suggest …. there is an option not to tell the truth when the police ask you to help them uncover what really happened in a serious corruption investigation. That’s how criminals talk, not public servants.”
“So I want to say to them: Don’t threaten us. We cannot be intimidated. We will not let you make this a country where honest people are scared of speaking the truth,” he said.
Likud later responded to Lapid by accusing him of whining.
“Stop whining and trying to divert attention away from the simple question: How did you, as finance minister, hold meetings with a close friend and former employer, Arnon Milchan, and why were you not questioned,” the party said in a statement.
Lapid is not the first figure to be vilified by Netanyahu and his supporters over the investigation, with police also accused of being biased against the prime minister and cooking up the case against him.
Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan, who overseas the police, broke with the rest of his Likud party in expressing support for the police following their recommendations Wednesday.
“I support the Israel Police and I do not find fault with their intentions,” he said in Knesset.
He also expressed backing for the prime minister, saying, “Netanyahu deserves the presumption of innocence like any citizen. He needs to continue managing the country during one of the most difficult periods.”
The comments by Erdan, whose ministry is responsible for the police, stood in sharp contrast to the critical voices of fellow Likud lawmakers, led by the prime minister himself, who lined up both before and after the police recommendations became public to accuse the police force of political bias.
Earlier in the day, Netanyahu said that after reading the recommendations report of the police, “I can say it’s biased, extreme, has holes like Swiss cheese and holds no water.”
Tourism Minister Yariv Levin (Likud) described the police recommendations as “a contemptible move to stage a government coup against the will of the voter.”
But Erdan advised against trying to use the police for political purposes. “As I said, I back the Israel Police and I back all the institutions of law.”
Erdan was addressing claims by Israel Police Commissioner Roni Alsheich earlier this month that private investigators were hired to tail his officers as they worked on two graft investigations against Netanyahu.
In a rare interview on the cases with Hadashot news’s investigative program “Uvda,” Alsheich claimed that “powerful figures” had hired private investigators to collect information about the police investigators in the Netanyahu cases, apparently to personally discredit them should they recommend indictments.
Netanyahu immediately responded that Alsheich’s insinuation was “so grave” that it warranted its own “objective investigation” on the police handling of the cases against him and it called into question whether the police were really objective toward him.
Erdan told the Knesset that Alsheich’s allegations had worried him too. He called on the attorney general to investigate the issue and not to leave the issue “hanging in the air.”
He added, “If, God forbid, someone is looking for information on investigators, it’s something the public needs to know about. I’m not sleeping well at night because of this.”
Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.