In a heated Knesset session Monday called by the opposition, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu rebuffed criticisms of his conduct and leadership, saying the left had had it in for him from the start.
At a special plenum session called by 40 MKs, opposition leaders censured the prime minister on issues ranging from regional peace, perceived anti-democratic legislation and the corruption investigations into Netanyahu’s affairs.
On the latter, the premier noted wryly: “You’ve wanted me out since day one on the first time I was elected. Then on the second time, then on the third time and then on the fourth time. I wonder what’ll happen on the fifth time. Sorry, a prime minister is only replaced at the polls.”
In a subsequent comment, opposition leader Isaac Herzog said he would welcome new elections. “You say the public must decide. Let’s do it. Let’s go back to the voters.”
At the session Netanyahu pushed back at the notion that he was leading Israel into isolation, speaking of a diplomatic “renaissance” and improved global standing.
Listing Israel’s diplomatic achievements, Netanyahu, who also serves as foreign minister, said he had only just been invited by a high-ranking Japanese official to visit Tokyo by the end of the year.
He also noted that he had held an “important call” with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi over the weekend, though he did not give further details.
He also hailed a “very warm” letter he received from US President Donald Trump on Sunday thanking him for backing the US’s “fix it or nix it” policy on the Iran deal.
“Countries are standing in line to improve their ties with us,” Netanyahu said, noting also his upcoming trip to India, “warm” correspondence from the Chinese leader, and improved ties with moderate Arab states on which he said he could not elaborate.
Netanyahu was challenged by Herzog, who linked Sissi’s call to the 40th anniversary this week of Egyptian leader Anwar Sadat’s historic visit to Israel.
The call “is a result of the peace deal of Menachem Begin,” said Herzog, adding that Netanyahu, in Begin’s shoes, would have been “afraid” to advance a peace deal with Egypt.
Herzog was involved in an unsuccessful US- and Egyptian-led push to restart peace talks in 2016. He has blamed the failure to seize the opportunity on hardliners in Netanyahu’s Likud party.
Also at the debate a Druze MK from the coalition Yisrael Beytenu party called on Netanyahu to torpedo the so-called Jewish state bill or revise it to explicitly support equality for all Israel’s citizens, arguing the current draft discriminates against his community.
“I, as a Druze, speak in the name of nearly all the Druze: We have no problem with the definition of a Jewish and democratic state. On the contrary: We are happy to live in a Jewish state,” said Hamad Amar. But the current draft of the bill “discriminates against the people who protect the borders of the state,” he added, referring to Druze enlistment in the IDF.
He urged Netanyahu to revise the bill to incorporate clauses backing “equality” for all of Israel’s citizens. His party’s leader, Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman, has also expressed reservations about the bill, saying it could turn Israel into a “halachic [Jewish legal] state” and hurt Israel’s minorities.
Referring to a series of bills targeting the Israel Police, coalition chair David Bitan offered a staunch defense of the prime minister on the corruption probes against him, arguing that “an investigation is not guilt; a police recommendation is not guilt.”
Netanyahu’s two close advisers — Yitzhak Molcho and David Shimron — were questioned repeatedly by police last week in Case 3000, the investigation into Israel’s multi-billion purchase of German submarines. Netanyahu is not a suspect in that case, but is suspected in two other cases of, respectively, accepting pricey gifts from billionaire benefactors and discussing a quid-pro-quo deal with the publisher of the Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper. The prime minister denies all wrongdoing.
“When confidants are investigated, it doesn’t mean those who appointed them” are guilty, said Bitan.
From the opposition , Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid slammed Bitan and Likud MK David Amsalem for advancing legislation that would prevent police making recommendations to the prosecution.
“Mr. Prime Minister, you can stop this. Call on your rottweilers, Bitan and Amsalem, to stop it and stop their attacks on police. You can stop it, but you won’t,” said Lapid.
Marissa Newman contributed to this report.