Opposition leader Yair Lapid on Sunday evening decried as a “horror show” the speech Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made just before entering the opening hearing of his corruption trial, and said it confirmed that a criminal defendant cannot serve as Israel’s leader.
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, ripping into police and prosecutors as he became the first Israeli premier to stand trial on criminal charges while in office, and declaring 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,” he 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,” he said.
Lapid lambasted Netanyahu over the speech in an interview with Channel 13 later in the day.
“Israel’s prime minister stood and said people can’t trust police, the prosecution or the court,” the Yesh Atid-Telem party leader said. “What happens to an Israeli citizen who hears him and thinks he’s right? Are we supposed to close the country and throw away the key?
“I have been saying for more than 18 months that someone who sits on the defendant’s bench cannot also be the prime minister. Today we got a demonstration why that principle is correct. It was a horror show by a frightened man who is telling Israel’s citizens that they cannot trust anything here, with followers standing behind him and saying amen,” Lapid charged.
He also argued the premier and his loyalists were seeking to intimidate the judges.
“You know, there was that image of all the Knesset members and ministers standing behind him — they included Likud’s representatives in the Judicial Appointments Committee,” he said. “They were brought so that the judges would feel threatened, so that the justice system would feel threatened. This is a defendant who is intimidating the legal system. It is terrible beyond comprehension.
“He is trying to drag down the country together with him, and we can’t let him do that.”
Addressing Netanyahu, Lapid said: “You are Israel’s prime minister. Your job is to safeguard the law enforcement system.”
“If there is a military operation that doesn’t succeed, will he tell people to come and protest against the Defense Ministry and the Israel Defense Forces? There is a complete collapse here of the notion that there is truth and there is a lie,” he concluded.
In addition to Netanyahu, the other defendants in the three cases against him were also at Sunday’s opening hearing: Arnon Mozes, publisher of the Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper; Shaul Elovitch, controlling shareholder of the Bezeq telecommunications company; and Elovitch’s wife, Iris Elovitch.
Netanyahu faces charges of fraud and breach of trust in all three cases, as well as bribery in one of them.
Among the Likud lawmakers who accompanied Netanyahu were ministers Israel Katz, Amir Ohana, Miri Regev, David Amsalem and Tzachi Hanegbi, along with MKs Nir Barkat, Mai Golan and others.
Lapid’s No. 2, Moshe Ya’alon, launched an attack Monday morning on Netanyahu’s centrist partner, Defense Minister Benny Gantz, who had been allied for more than a year with Lapid and Ya’alon in the Blue and White party but eventually decided to join a government under him, prompting the party to split.
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.”
Speaking with Army Radio, Ya’alon charged that Gantz and his party members had “joined the order of Trappists,” the monks noted for their vows of silence.
Ya’alon called on Gantz and his party members to speak up and “explain how you unite and reconcile society with all this tongue-lashing” by the prime minister.
In his remarks before the hearing, Netanyahu 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,” he said.
Netanyahu touted the support Likud received in the last elections, calling it a “vote of confidence” in him and a “vote of no confidence” in those who investigated and pressed charges against him.
“I stand here today as your prime minister with my back straight and my head held high,” he said.
Netanyahu also claimed witnesses were intimidated into testifying against him.
“Is this the rule of law? Is this democracy?” he said, asserting there was no precedent for charging a politician for allegedly trading favors for positive news coverage.
“They invented a special clause for me that doesn’t exist in any law book in Israel or the world. How absurd,” 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.