To raucous cheers, applause and chants of “Bibi, king of Israel,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu entered the Likud Knesset faction meeting on Monday in a defiant mood and issued a message of harsh criticism against the press, who he accused of trying to topple his government.
With the cloud of two police investigations hanging over his head, the prime minister could at least take comfort in the warm and enthusiastic welcome he was given by his MKs, advisers and Likud activists in the room. And if Netanyahu was upset by the poor showing of just three of the 10 Likud cabinet ministers at the meeting, he did not show it, although the same could not be said of coalition chairman MK David Bitan, who fumed afterward that he would start blocking legislation of truant ministers if their absenteeism continued.
Addressing the media at the faction meeting, Netanyahu scolded them for what he described as “a huge media campaign against me designed to topple the Likud government which I lead,” describing the situation as “outrageous.”
The prime minister claimed that certain members of the press were acting not just as journalists but also as “investigators, judges and hangmen” in an effort to politically decapitate him.
“An entire investigation is being conducted on television,” Netanyahu said. “Every evening they are disseminating selectively and carefully filtered transcripts and deliberate lies on the two issues in question,” referring to the steady stream of broadcasts by Channel 2 on recorded conversations between the prime minister and Yediot Aharonot
publisher Arnon “Noni” Mozes.
Netanyahu alleged that the purpose of the media focus on the recordings, and the other investigation into alleged illicit gifts he may have received while in office, was to create a groundswell of pressure on the police and the attorney-general to file an indictment against him.
“So I want to say to you, friends: in a democracy, governments are changed at the polling booth, not through orchestrated pressure on the attorney-general and the law enforcement services,” the prime minister declared.
Speaking earlier in the day, opposition leader and Zionist Union head MK Isaac Herzog defended the press, and took Netanyahu to task for his Facebook post on Sunday in which the prime minister said that he had called elections after a bill was submitted that would have prevented the Israel HaYom newspaper from being distributed free of charge
In his post, Netanyahu was defending himself from accusations that the law had been concocted together with Mozes as part of a deal to ease the financial stress Israel HaYom
was causing Yediot Aharonot
, in return for Yediot
softening its fiercely critical stance of the prime minister.
The prime minister said he had prevented the Israel HaYom
bill from being brought to a preliminary vote “for many months,” that he had voted against it, and that after the law passed, he “dismantled the government and went to elections, because of the subversion within the government to pass this law, among other [reasons].”
But Herzog upbraided the prime minister for this statement, claiming it was proof that Netanyahu had a direct connection to Israel HaYom
, as has always been claimed by his opponents.
“Netanyahu has been revealed as someone who trades away Israeli democracy as if it is his private property, and all citizens in Israel should tremble for the image of Israeli democracy,” Herzog proclaimed.
He said that even if no crime had been committed by the prime minister, “we are however talking about a severe breach of trust between the government and the citizens of the state.”
Herzog also warned that if Netanyahu does not relinquish his role as communications minister, Zionist Union would file a petition to the High Court of Justice demanding that he do so.
Yesh Atid chairman Yair Lapid was less scathing in his assessment of the situation, but said that the investigations into the prime minister have distracted the government from actual governing.
“The prime minister should be considered innocent until proved otherwise, and we must remember and respect that,” he said, adding that the police, attorney-general and State Attorney’s Office need to be given time to complete their investigations and deliberations.
The Yesh Atid leader stated, however, that this process must not be dragged on too long because of the need to govern the country.
“We have real problems, and we cannot allow ourselves a prime minister who spends more time with his lawyers and in interrogation rooms than he does in cabinet discussions and hearings on the economy,” Lapid said. “The attorney-general needs to take this into account as well.”