A major conservative world leader is facing charges of bribery and abuse of power, but claims no wrongdoing and says he is the victim of a partisan “witch hunt.” Sound familiar?
But, I am not talking about President Trump. Those are the words that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu used to respond when he was indicted on charges of bribery, fraud, and breach of trust.
Netanyahu, a staunch supporter of Trump, now faces calls to resign over the charges. But expressing a defiance similar to the mutually supportive President Trump, Netanyahu said he would not quit, despite the indictment.
The 70-year-old right-wing Likud Party leader denies all wrongdoing and denounced the indictment – the first against a sitting Israeli prime minister – as an “attempted coup.”
But his ability to lead a country mired in political crisis, after two inconclusive elections this year that failed to produce a government, is being questioned.
The centrist Blue and White Party headed by Netanyahu’s main rival, Benny Gantz, issued a statement calling on him to “immediately resign from all ministerial positions in the government”.
The party – which has 33 of parliament’s 120 seats to Likud’s 32 – said its lawyers had formally approached the prime minister and attorney general’s offices saying it was “imperative” that Netanyahu step down.
Under Israeli law, as prime minister, he is under no obligation to do so. But with Israel heading towards a likely third election in less than a year, Netanyahu could soon find himself in the difficult position of trying to win an election while preparing to be prosecuted.
Two Likud lawmakers publicly broached holding a party leadership contest on Thursday, but even such mild expressions of disloyalty upset loyalists.
Senior ministers issued public statements declaring their support, and Justice Minister Amir Ohana said he was proud of his fellow Likud parliamentarians for standing by Netanyahu, adding pointedly: “Except for two of them.”
Netanyahu’s ultra-nationalist coalition partner Bezalel Smotrich, the transport minister, also offered sympathy for Netanyahu over the charges against him, announced by Attorney-General Avichai Mandelblit on Thursday.
Smotrich said in a tweet that planned street protests in support of the prime minister were aimed at preventing “a predatory, violent and dangerous judicial dictatorship”.
After a nationally televised address on Thursday night, Netanyahu himself kept a low profile on Friday, posting a tweet with heart and an Israeli flag emojis saying, “Thank you for your support and love. Shabbat Shalom.”
The prime minister faces up to 10 years in prison if convicted of bribery and a maximum 3-year term for fraud and breach of trust, according to legal experts.
Sounding very much like his American counterpart who is also under attack from his opposing party, Netanyahu insisted that the indictment is a political vendetta.
“It’s very disturbing what is going on here and how the police conducted this investigation,” Netanyahu said. “This is a contaminated process, we need to investigate the investigators, they didn’t want the truth, they were after me personally.”
Two of the three cases involve news media outlets whose bosses allegedly received inducements from Netanyahu in return for more favorable coverage on his policies and personal conduct.