JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called on Wednesday for an inquiry into the investigators who brought corruption charges against him, in a move that critics said was an attempt to distract from his handling of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Amid a surge in coronavirus cases, Israel’s attorney general has accused Netanyahu of trying to discredit the country’s criminal justice system while he is on trial for bribery, fraud and breach of trust. He denies any wrongdoing.
Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud party and allies voiced anger this week after Israel’s Channel 12 news reported that police and prosecutors had failed to disclose alleged conflicts of interest by an investigator who the report said was involved in the cases against him.
“It is clear that the police and prosecution are making political decisions against justice and law in order to topple a right-wing prime minister,” Netanyahu said at the start of a Likud meeting on Wednesday evening.
“This conduct must be investigated,” said Netanyahu, who has consistently accused police and prosecutors of bias against him.
A spokesman for Israel’s State Attorney Office declined to comment on Netanyahu’s remarks.
In a statement, Israel’s justice ministry said the investigator referenced in the Channel 12 report was not involved in the case in which the person allegedly had a conflict of interest.
Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit called claims of judicial impropriety “baseless falsehoods entirely intended to delegitimise the justice system and its decisions regarding the prime minister.”
Israel’s longest-serving prime minister faces public anger over the corruption allegations and his handling of the pandemic, drawing thousands to the streets in almost daily protests.
The country has seen a sharp rise in new cases after initial success at the start of the pandemic, and on Tuesday began a week-long campaign of night curfews and school closures. It has reported 1,048 deaths and over 139,000 cases among its nine million population.
Netanyahu, whose corruption trial began in May and is set to resume in January, was sworn in for a fifth term this summer after striking a unity deal with his principal election rival, former armed forces chief Benny Gantz.
Speaking after Netanyahu’s remarks, Gantz, who has been at odds with the premier over the coronavirus response and fiscal policy, said: “Sharp attacks by the government against the law enforcement system are a danger to Israeli democracy.”
(Additional reporting by Maayan Lubell; Editing by Stephen Farrell and Mark Potter)