JERUSALEM — Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu kept Israelis hanging for three hours Monday night after his party said he had a dramatic announcement to make.
But his address fell decidedly flat, with the Israeli leader using it to contest corruption allegations that may be coming to a head in the lead-up to elections. Timed to coincide with the prime-time evening news, Netanyahu’s big revelation was that he had demanded that police allow him to “confront” former colleagues who have agreed to give evidence in corruption cases against him.
“Tonight I reveal to you that during the investigations against me, I demanded a confrontation with the state witnesses,” he said.
He wanted to look them in the eye, Netanyahu said. Police, however, had refused his request twice, he said, in what he appears to consider an injustice. He repeated his demand to confront them and said he should be allowed to do it publicly, live. “Let the public see everything, hear everything,” Netanyahu said.
So underwhelmed was Israel’s Channel 10 that it cut off its live television broadcast in the middle of the seven-minute speech. Its chief political correspondent, Barak Ravid, called the spectacle “chutzpah.”
It was a slap in the face for the media-conscious leader as he enters campaign mode after calling early elections. He is widely believed to have done so to get a new mandate before he is indicted. Police have recommended charges in three corruption cases, two of which involve allegations of bribery in return for favorable news coverage.
But Netanyahu may not have called them early enough, as Israeli Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit weighs whether he has a duty to announce the details of an indictment before Israelis go to the polls on April 9. Netanyahu has argued that such an announcement would be “undemocratic.” Before the indictment is formally issued, the prime minister would have a chance to present his defense — a process that could drag on for months, until after elections.
It would be unfair to have an indictment announcement so close to the elections, depriving Netanyahu of the chance to present his full case before the vote, the prime minister said again Monday night. He again called the allegations part of a left-wing plot to oust him.
The address set the scene for Netanyahu’s main fight in the elections — the legal battle, rather than any opponent, said Ellie Hochenberg, diplomatic correspondent for i24 News. After Israelis were kept guessing for hours about whether a big security or diplomatic announcement was coming, the speech was an “anticlimax,” she said on the channel.
Channel 10’s decision was “not political” but “professional journalism,” Ravid said. “Editors were sitting in the control room, and once they decided there was no news they cut the live broadcast,” he said.
The Justice Ministry responded to the address by saying that all the investigatory activities carried out in cases relating to the prime minister were conducted “professionally and thoroughly.”
“Examination of the findings of the investigation are currently being conducted by the Attorney General, the State Attorney and their staff as part of an orderly and professional work process that should not be conducted in the media,” it said in a statement.
Netanyahu’s political rivals also jumped on the broadcast.
“In a normal country, a prime minister does not behave this way,” Labor Party Chairman Avi Gabbay said, criticizing Netanyahu for his attacks on law enforcement authorities. “Instead of dealing with the security of the residents of the south, the cost of living or the collapse of the health system, Netanyahu is busy rescuing himself from the investigations,” he added.
Gabbay called on leaders of other parties to refuse to join a coalition with Netanyahu, even if he wins. Despite the corruption allegations, Netanyahu’s Likud party is expected to win the largest number of seats in parliament but would need to form a coalition government, according to polls.
“The time has come for leadership that functions for the country’s citizens, and not itself,” said a statement from the Resilience for Israel Party, started by political newcomer Benny Gantz, a former chief of staff in the Israeli army.