After Pressure From Right, Netanyahu Vows to Talk Settlements With Trump

In a rare Q&A with lawmakers, Netanyahu also criticizes the criminal allegations against him and repeats claims that the November fires were caused by terror-motivated arson.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu fields questions from Knesset members on January 25, 2017.
Olivier Fitoussi

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu fielded questions from Israeli lawmakers Wednesday in a rare Q&A in which he pledged to discuss the settlement issue with new U.S. President Donald Trump.

After being asked by a far-right lawmaker whether he still supported a two-state solution, Netanyahu vowed to raise the issue of settlements with  Trump in their meeting in Washington next month.

"We need to act responsibly but also decisively," Netanyahu told the Knesset after being asked whether, after Trump's election, he still stood behind his commitment to a two-state solution.

"Diplomatic wisdom isn't something you say ... it's getting what you want with wisdom and not inadvertently achieving the opposite," Netanyahu said. "We built [in settlements] before and we build now, and I will raise the specific question of construction – alongside other issues – with President Trump."

On Tuesday, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer had been asked  about Israel's decision to build 2,500 new housing units in the West Bank. He did not offer support or condemnation but said Israel was a close ally and the issue would be discussed by the two leaders.

Police investigations

Netanyahu also defended himself amid the two corruption investigations against him, saying there is nothing improper about accepting gifts from friends or meeting with newspaper publishers. He called the raft of claims against him “hypocrisy” and “self-righteousness.”

The police are investigating whether Netanyahu improperly received valuable gifts from businesspeople including Hollywood producer Arnon Milchan. The police are also investigating allegations that Netanyahu promised the publisher of the Yedioth Ahronoth daily, Arnon Mozes, to promote legislation favorable to the paper in return for more sympathetic coverage. 

Netanyahu, who spoke for more than 80 minutes, evaded questions from the opposition about the propriety of staying in his position during the investigations.

"There was no offense here and you do not replace a prime minister through an investigation. This is a bad joke . One is allowed to receive gifts from friends, so they misconstrue the law," Netanyahu said. 

"Anyone with eyes in his head can see this is a hypocritical witch hunt. They are terrorizing law enforcement, and their message is clear: If you do not indict, then you're [not doing your job]. I have news for you: I will continue to lead Israel for many years."

Netanyahu, who is also foreign minister and communications minister, was asked whether he should recuse himself from dealing with the television industry in light of his friendship with Milchan, who is also a shareholder in Channel 10.

But Speaker Yuli Edelstein urged Netanyahu not to answer questions on matters under investigation or in areas not clearly his responsibility.

“I’ve heard the range of things said here,” Netanyahu said. “I hear the scorn and defiance. What hypocrisy – wait: What a carnival of self-righteousness.”

He also referred to legislation in the last Knesset that would have barred the daily Israel Hayom from being distributed for free. The paper, founded by U.S. casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, has been highly supportive of Netanyahu over the past decade and has topped Mozes’ Yedioth Ahronoth in circulation.

Calling the investigations “a bad joke,” Netanyahu said “they need to investigate the 43 Knesset members who voted for the Israel Hayom law and received fawning coverage from Mozes in the paper and [Yedioth’s website] Ynet because the aim is clear, and any means are permissible.”

Netanyahu said he was suffering the same hypocrisy regarding the alleged improper gifts.

In response to a question from MK Omer Bar-Lev (Zionist Union) about his contacts with Adelson, Netanyahu replied: “You don’t really mean to say that I’m the first to meet with publishers, newspaper editors and others who influence the media.”

In response to a question from MK Michal Rozin (Meretz), Netanyahu said he stands by “every word” of an affidavit submitted to the election commission by his Likud party, which said Netanyahu had no power to control Israel Hayom’s editorial line.

Addressing the prime minister, opposition leader Isaac Herzog (Zionist Union) said: “You’re mired up to the neck in your investigations, and it impinges on your ability to exercise judgment.”

Referring to the gifts affair, Herzog added sarcastically: “I don’t want to tell you that it could be that the cigars and champagne affected you.”

Netanyahu also repeated claims that a string of fires in November were caused by terror-motivated arson. "That fact that we can't prove it doesn't mean it's not what happened. We're still examining it," he said. 

The fire service concluded that 71 of 80 fires stemmed from arson, but no indictments were filed. A closer look by Haaretz yielded little evidence to support the claim.