A stunning tirade highlights Israeli divide over Netanyahu

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POOL - In this Sunday, May 24, 2020 photo, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu accompanied by members of his Likud Party in masks delivers a statement before entering the district court in Jerusalem. Netanyahu's fulminating tirade against Israel's legal system on the steps of a Jerusalem courthouse managed to even overshadow the opening of his historic corruption trial. Surrounded by loyal deputies, and with hundreds of impassioned supporters cheering him outside and echoing his charges, Netanyahu's onslaught capped a years-long campaign that has bitterly divided the country and raised fears of irreparably tearing apart the delicate fabric of Israeli society. (AP Photo/Yonatan Sindel/Pool Photo via AP)

JERUSALEM – He named names of police investigators and prosecutors. He accused them of using “Soviet style” extortion to turn witnesses against him. He even claimed that elderly Holocaust survivors were on his side, sympathizing with his plight.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has long faced accusations of using his formidable oratory skills and flair for the dramatic to sow divisions between friends and foes. But his fulminating tirade against Israel's legal system — launched in the lobby of the very courthouse where he went on trial for corruption charges — seemed to enter new territory.

Israel has been deeply divided for decades, between religious and secular Jews, between those who favored a deal with the Palestinians and those who opposed it. But Netanyahu’s blistering attack on the legitimacy of Israel's legal system threatened to shake the very foundations of the state and has remained a topic of debate all week.

“There have always been harsh political arguments, but there was always agreement on the rules of the game,” said Dan Meridor, a former justice minister from Netanyahu's Likud party. “The prime minister needs to model behavior. Instead, he's taking his trial out to the street. He's challenging the existing order and it's very dangerous.”

Surrounded by loyal deputies and with hundreds of adoring supporters chanting outside, Netanyahu arrived at the courthouse Sunday ready for battle. Before entering the courtroom, he accused police, prosecutors, the courts and the media of an ideologically driven grand conspiracy to oust him against the will of the people. He said he was the victim of a “witch hunt” and made veiled threats against those conducting his investigations.

His months of fiery rhetoric against the institutions of the state he leads have drawn comparisons to his loaded denunciations as opposition leader 25 years ago during the charged period that preceded the assassination of then-Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. Netanyahu's own appointed attorney general says he's received concrete threats and the prosecutor in the case has been assigned a bodyguard.

“Someone capable of saying those things isn’t fit to be prime minister,” said opposition leader Yair Lapid. “He knows it will end in violence, but he doesn’t care.”

Netanyahu faces charges of fraud, breach of trust and accepting bribes in a series of corruption cases stemming from ties to wealthy friends. He is accused of accepting lavish gifts and offering to grant favors to powerful media moguls in exchange for favorable coverage of him and his family.