Several Likud lawmakers were set to accompany Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Sunday to the start of his graft trial, as the premier’s allies doubled down on their accusations that the charges against him were politically motivated.
Ministers Amir Ohana and Miri Regev, two of Netanyahu’s most vocal supporters, announced Saturday they would join the premier when he arrives at the Jerusalem District Court for the 3 p.m. hearing, as did fellow Likud Minister Tzachi Hanegbi.
Additional Likud lawmakers were also expected to attend, with protests both for and against Netanyahu set to be held near the court on Jerusalem’s Salah-a-Din Street.
Opposition leader Yair Lapid tore into the Likud lawmakers planning to join Netanyahu, calling it a “national disgrace” and noting that Ohana, as public security minister, oversees law enforcement agencies.
“This is the true coup attempt,” Lapid, who heads the Yesh Atid party, wrote on Twitter. He was referring to accusations by Netanyahu and his backers that his indictment last year amounted to an “attempted coup.”
Hours before the start of the trial, Likud politicians issued statements and took to the airwaves to defend Netanyahu and lambaste the legal system.
“The day of the opening of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s trial will be remembered as one of the low points of the Israeli legal system,” new Knesset Speaker Yariv Levin of Likud said in a statement.
Levin, a close confidant of Netanyahu who has long been a critic of the courts, echoed other Likud MKs in claiming it was not only the premier who would be on trial.
“It is a trial for the future of Israeli democracy and the future of its law enforcement,” he said. “I, like millions of Israeli citizens, will stand today by the prime minister’s side.”
Likud MK Miki Zohar repeated unsubstantiated claims that the media and political foes of the premier had aided in bringing about Netanyahu’s indictment.
“This is persecution against a person you can’t succeed in beating at the polls,” Zohar told Radio 103FM. “Luckily the public doesn’t think like you.”
He stopped short, however, of criticizing the judges, instead accusing police and prosecutors of having “manufactured” the charges.
Ayoub Kara, a former Likud minister, suggested a decision to convict Netanyahu could lead to violence.
“There is only goal and it is to harm the ‘king’ in order to break the national camp,” he wrote on Twitter. “I call on the court, because it’s in its hands, to immediately prevent a civil war that is more dangerous than any war we’ve gone through.”
However the Derech Eretz party, whose two MKs split from Blue and White’s Telem faction to join the coalition, said in a statement that the prime minister’s case should only be decided by the court, and not on the streets or in the media.
“Nobody wanted to see this day. Like all Israeli citizens, we hope the prime minister will be acquitted by the court, which is the only place for clarifying the facts and the truth, rather than the streets or in the media,” the statement read. “Today it is especially important to remember that it is not the right-wing camp that is on trial, but one person.”
The latest criticism of the charges against Netanyahu came amid growing criticism in recent weeks by Likud of Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit, who indicted the prime minister.
Lawmakers have questioned Mandelblit’s role in the so-called Harpaz affair, a 2010 scandal in which he was investigated over but never tried for, with one minister last week calling him an “alleged criminal.”
“I never believed we’d reach a situation that ministers would say this about the attorney general,” Avigdor Feldman, a prominent lawyer who defended former president Moshe Katsav during his rape trial, told Army Radio.
He added: “There’s a feeling that all lines were crossed. This is far beyond long-term damage.”
Besides Netanyahu, who will become the first Israeli prime minister to go on trial while in office, the other defendants in the three cases he faces charges in will also be at Sunday’s opening hearing.
Netanyahu, who denies wrongdoing, faces charges of fraud and breach of trust in all the cases, as well as bribery in one of them.
In the bribery case, Netanyahu is accused of pushing regulatory favors in exchange for positive media coverage. He is also accused of attempting to reach a quid pro quo for positive media coverage and of taking expensive gifts from wealthy benefactors in the two other cases, which are considered less serious.