Opposition lawmakers on Sunday denounced Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for his scathing attack on police investigators, after the Israeli leader branded the police recommendation that he be indicted on bribery charges as part of a “witch hunt” by a biased force.
Opposition leader and Zionist Union MK Tzipi Livni accused Netanyahu of slandering the police and undermining law enforcement during his half-hour speech at a Hanukkah candle-lighting ceremony that he mostly dedicated to dismissing the allegations against him.
“If you are ever in distress and need the police, remember it’s Netanyahu that is trying to weaken this agency,” she tweeted.
Netanyahu hit back hard in his Sunday evening address against the bombshell police recommendation earlier in the day that he be indicted for taking bribes in the Bezeq-Walla corruption probe, known as Case 4000.
“The witch-hunt against us continues,” Netanyahu told a crowd of Likud supporters at the Kfar Maccabiah complex near Tel Aviv. The investigation, he claimed, was biased and “skewed from the start…. A year ago, before even opening the investigations,” he charged of the police, “they decided what the outcome would be and leaked their conclusions.”
Investigators said earlier Sunday they believed there was enough evidence to bring Netanyahu to trial on charges of accepting bribes, fraud and breach of trust, and fraudulently accepting benefits. It is the third case in which police have recommended bribery charges against the prime minister. They also recommended that his wife, Sara, stand trial in the case.
But Netanyahu said the allegations were “baseless” and that the truth would eventually emerge. Hanukkah marks “the victory of light over darkness,” he said, and declared, “the light will always win out.”
He also noted that Hanukkah is a festival of miracles, and mused bitterly, “How did they know to time (the publication of) these surreal allegations precisely on the very last day of the police chief? What can I tell you? A real Hanukkah miracle. What a gift they gave us for the festival,” he said sarcastically, to cheers from his upbeat supporters.
Sunday was police commissioner Roni Alsheich’s final full day in office.
The comments drew blistering rebukes from opposition politicians.
“When you see Border Police forces fighting terrorism, remember who Netanyahu is slandering,” Livni said. “The presumption of innocence until proven guilty is not a right to undermine law enforcement agencies in Israel.”
“Tonight we saw an anxious and frightened prime minister who has a heavy cloud of corruption floating over him,” Yesh Atid chairman Yair Lapid said. “He no longer has the moral or public mandate to make crucial decisions for the State of Israel.”
Lapid also slammed Netanyahu for criticizing police investigators’ handling of the series of corruption investigations involving him and called on the ruling Likud party to remove him as prime minister.
MK Tamar Zandberg, leader of the left-wing Meretz party, called Netanyahu a “criminal” who has “adopted criminal behavior and the language of the underworld.”
“The victory of light over darkness will be when Bibi goes home,” she said, using Netanyahu’s nickname.
Earlier on Sunday, Livni, Lapid, Zandberg and other Netanyahu rivals called on the prime minister to step down in the wake of the police recommendations.
In their recommendations, submitted to prosecutors Sunday morning, investigators said that Netanyahu advanced regulatory decisions benefiting Shaul Elovitch, the controlling shareholder in Bezeq, the country’s largest telecommunications firm — despite opposition from the Communication Ministry’s career officials — in exchange for positive coverage from Elovitch’s Walla news site.
At the time when a merger of Bezeq with the Yes satellite operator was approved in 2015 — a deal at the heart of the case, said to have benefited Elovitch to the tune of hundreds of millions of shekels — the prime minister was also serving as acting communications minister.
Netanyahu rejected the specific allegations on Sunday evening, saying that there was no benefit to either side in the alleged quid pro quo. “I didn’t give anything to Elovitch and I didn’t get anything from Elovitch,” he said.
“Not only did Elovitch not get anything from me during my tenure as communications minister, he lost a fortune,” the prime minister charged. “As minister of communications, we instituted the wholesale market reform that lowered the prices of the Internet and collapsed Bezeq’s share — a reform that seriously hurt Elovitch. In other words, Bezeq received nothing, but lost,” he said.
He also said that the claim that he had received positive coverage from Walla was untrue. “What did I get?” he asked the crowd rhetorically. “I’ll tell you: I got terrible coverage at Walla… Walla is a left-wing website that gives and has given me negative coverage for years, especially on the eve of the last elections.”
In their statement, police had said “the prime minister and his associates intervened in a blatant and ongoing manner, and sometimes even daily, in the content published by the Walla News website, and also sought to influence the appointment of senior officials (editors and reporters) via their contacts with Shaul and Iris Elovitch,” the Bezeq owner’s wife.
Netanyahu, however, said there was nothing wrong with being in contact with owners of major media outlets.
“I don’t think it okay in a democracy for the police to investigate ties between politicians and the media,” he said, accusing investigators of singling him out, and noting that dozens of lawmakers receive “flattering coverage” and are not probed by authorities.
“I wasn’t surprised the recommendations were published, or that they were published today,” Netanyahu added, citing the timing of the announcement on Alsheich’s last full day, and accusing the police chief of leading a smear campaign against him.