Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu strongly attacked the state prosecution on Monday, hours after the first witness took the stand in his corruption trial on charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust.
“The entire proceeding against me was an abuse of the destructive power the prosecution holds,” Netanyahu said at a press conference. The prime minister referred to the hearing as a "charade," and went as far as accusing the state prosecution of an "attempted coup."
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"The prosecution opened this investigation against the law… and why did they do it? Because they're on the hunt," Netanyahu claimed.
Netanyahu went on to say the prosecution “ignored testimonies which didn’t fit their basic thesis, leaked information, and worst of all – extorted witnesses with threats so severe (that they included) breaking up their families.”
“This is what illegitimate use of power looks like,” said Netanyahu. “This is how you try to topple a strong prime minister from the right wing. This is what a coup attempt looks like.”
Defense Minister and Kahol Lavan party leader Benny Gantz lashed out at Netanyahu following his speech, calling on other parties to unite and replace him.
"Netanyahu proved this evening that he is unfit to lead a government, and that he is the one attempting a coup. His attack on the prosecution was meant to achieve one thing – delegitimize the results of his trial and an attempt to gather unfettered power," Gantz tweeted.
"I call on all the party lists to unite and find a way to replace him. Until we succeed, I would like to send a message to the prosecution, the judges, and the entire justice system – keep doing your jobs without fear. We won't allow any harm to come to you, and will protect your independence during the transitional government," he added.
Key witness testifies
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The evidentiary phase of Netanyahu’s trial on charges of fraud, bribery and breach of trust began on Monday, after a number of delays.
Liat Ben-Ari, the prosecutor in Netanyahu's corruption trial, said in her opening statement that the prime minister made "illegitimate use" of his power to obtain favorable coverage.
“The case before this honorable court today is a substantial and serious case involving government corruption. Defendant No. 1 is the prime minister of Israel, who according to the indictment, made improper use of the major government power placed in him to demand and obtain improper benefits from the owners of major Israeli media outlets to advance his personal interests, including a time during which he was facing the desire to be reelected.”
In his testimony, key witness Ilan Yeshua, the former CEO of the Walla website, said that interference with Walla’s coverage of the news began in late 2012 and that “the requests all came from the prime minister and his family.”
“The requests were mainly to make negative articles about the prime minister and his wife disappear and post articles that benefit them. There were also requests to post articles against various people who were against the prime minister, (for example), against Naftali Bennett,” the former CEO of the website said referring to the right-wing politician who currently heads the Yamina party.
“He got considerable attention, and demands with a lot of material to post against him and against his wife and against his dad,” Yeshua said, referring to Bennett.”
Yeshua listed those involved in biasing the coverage at Walla News, saying "First and foremost was Nir Hefetz. He would send demands over Whatsapp, usually to upload an item. I was instructed by Shaul to do as Nir Hefetz asked."
Nir Hefetz, a former newspaper editor who served as media adviser to the prime minister’s family, is another key witness in the Netanyahu trial.
Yeshua noted that "every news outlet constantly receives inquiries about coverage," but clarified that this was beyond the pale both "in terms of the number and nature of the requests." He said that the quantity and level of intensity of requests from other politicians in ten years combined was the equivalent of a week's worth of requests from the Netanyahu family. "There is no question that this was another level of intensity than normal," he said.
The trial will resume on Tuesday, where Yeshua will continue his testimony.