Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu slammed on Monday what he called a “vast media conspiracy” against him, saying that media coverage of two ongoing corruption investigations involving him constitutes an attempt to remove him from power undemocratically.
Netanyahu was greeted at the Likud party’s weekly faction meeting with cheers and chants of “Bibi melech Yisrael” (Bibi is king of Israel) — in a very deliberate show of support and solidarity from party MKs and other Likud activists, though most senior ministers were not present.
Taking his seat, the prime minister launched into a diatribe against the Israeli media for publishing what he said were “so-called” leaks of secret negotiations he allegedly held with Yedioth Ahronoth publisher Arnon Mozes in 2014 to apparently attempt to secure more favorable coverage.
“There is a fake investigation taking place against me on television every night,” he said. “[The media] are trying to pressure the attorney general and the police into indicting me for no reason.”
Netanyahu described the media coverage of the corruption investigations as a “march to decapitate” him, and accused journalists of acting as if they are “the investigators, the judges and the executioners.”
He was responding to an ongoing series of leaks, mostly to Channel 2 news, from the two ongoing police investigations into him: allegations he tried to negotiate a quid pro quo deal with Mozes, and that he and his wife received hundreds of thousands of shekels’ worth of luxury gifts from wealthy financiers.
“Well, I can tell the public something now,” he said: “that there has been no criminal wrongdoing.”
Netanyahu went on to say that the media’s “obsession” with the investigation was an attempt to hide the “huge successes” of his government, citing low unemployment and a weak declaration from Sunday’s Paris peace conference.
“The public does not buy it. Many, many people support us and realize this disgraceful game, and they are not falling for it,” he said. “I will continue to lead Likud and the state, with the help of God.” His colleagues cheered and applauded.
His comments came as left-wing activists called on Netanyahu-appointed Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit, a former cabinet secretary for the prime minister, who has been leading the investigations, to recuse himself.
Education Minister Naftali Bennett, one of Netanyahu’s senior coalition partners, defended Mandelblit’s conduct in the investigation, saying that he is “straight, strong, and impartial.”
Speaking at the start of his Jewish Home faction’s weekly meeting, the education minister also alluded to the upcoming inauguration of US President-elect Donald Trump, reiterating that there are new diplomatic opportunities that Israel must seize in the coming weeks.
“For the first time in 50 years, we are being asked what we want,” said Bennett, apparently referring to the new US administration.
He presented two alternatives: the annexation of Area C in the West Bank or a Palestinian state on the 1967 lines.
Bennett asserted that there will be no Palestinian state, adding, “This will also be the government’s position.”
He also referred in his remarks to an Arabic-language media campaign by Israeli ex-generals, launched on Sunday, urging Israel to separate from the Palestinians.
“The Israeli public understands that a Palestinian state will flood us with refugees,” Bennett said.
Meanwhile Mozes, the Yedioth Ahronoth publisher, who is suspected of colluding with Netanyahu, was interrogated by detectives for the the fourth time Monday. He was questioned under caution by police at the the Lahav 433 anti-corruption unit in Lod. The interview came the day after Mozes spent eight hours being grilled by officers.
Ron Yaron, editor-in-chief of Yedioth Ahronoth, also gave a statement to police Monday. On Sunday he wrote a front page editorial in which he indicated he had no knowledge at the time of the Netanyahu-Mozes deal, and that if the newspaper’s coverage had been ordered to swing behind the prime minister he, and his staff, would have walked out.
In recent days Channel 2 has been publishing leaked excerpts from hours of taped conversations Netanyahu reportedly had with Mozes in 2014 in which they were supposedly negotiating the terms of the agreement, which never came to fruition.
According to reports, Netanyahu and Mozes held several face-to-face conversations on the alleged deal under which Yedioth would scale back its critical coverage of the prime minister in return for Netanyahu pushing legislation that would reduce the impact of Yedioth’s competitor, Sheldon Adelson’s pro-Netanyahu Israel Hayom free daily.
Mozes has maintained that the meetings were Netanyahu’s idea, as was the deal, and he was expected to keep to that story during his questioning Monday, Channel 2 reported.
Netanyahu is said to have told police investigators that he recorded the conversations because he believed Mozes was trying to extort him. He never had so much as “half an intention” of implementing any deal with Mozes, the TV station on Saturday quoted Netanyahu as insisting.
In the second corruption case against Netanyahu, regarding cigars, champagne and other gifts he and his wife, Sara, allegedly received from Israeli film producer Arnon Milchan, the prime minister’s son, Yair, was to be questioned this week, Channel 2 said Monday. Sara Netanyahu has already been interviewed about the affair.
Analysts have said indictments are possible in both cases, and some have begun to see the twin scandals as heralding the possible end of Netanyahu’s nearly eight years in power.
Lawmakers in the prime minister’s Likud party have privately indicated some are starting to make preparations for the “day after,” but publicly the party is standing solidly by Netanyahu.
Unnamed coalition sources quoted by Channel 2 said that should Netanyahu be charged, coalition leaders will begin pushing for him to suspend himself, though not before.
Netanyahu’s predecessor, Ehud Olmert, resigned his office in 2009 before being indicted on a series of graft charges. He was eventually convicted on a small portion of them and is currently in prison.
Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.