AP Interview: Opposition leader says PM embarrassing Israel

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Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.

Israel's opposition leader Yair Lapid poses for a photo at his office in Tel Aviv, Israel, Thursday, May 21, 2020. (AP Photo/Oded Balilty)

TEL AVIV – Israel’s new opposition leader said Thursday that Benjamin Netanyahu’s upcoming corruption trial is “embarrassing” the country and that he believes the only reason the long-time prime minister is still in office is because lawmakers never imagined a scenario in which an indicted premier would not have the decency to step down himself.

In his first English-language interview since assuming the post, Yair Lapid said he was uncomfortable addressing Netanyahu's troubles before a foreign audience. Despite their rivalry, he said he takes no joy in watching a sitting prime minister walking into a courtroom defendant’s dock and said he felt bad that it would attract worldwide attention when the trial begins Sunday.

“It’s almost like I’m saying, I wish they would never notice this … this shouldn’t happen,” Lapid told The Associated Press. “This is horrible for the spirit of the nation.”

Together with former military chief Benny Gantz, Lapid led the centrist Blue and White party to a deadlock with Netanyahu’s Likud in three consecutive elections over the past year. But the alliance evaporated when Gantz, warning against the prospect of continued stalemate amid the coronavirus pandemic, bolted to join Netanyahu instead — reneging on his central campaign promise not to serve under an indicted prime minister.

Netanyahu, Israel’s longest-serving prime minister, and Gantz this week swore in their new government, the most bloated in Israeli history with 36 ministers and 16 deputies. Gantz argued the wasteful arrangement was unfortunate and unseemly, with unemployment soaring above 25% due to economic damage from the pandemic, but was still preferable to another costly and divisive fourth election.

Lapid attacked the narrative as a false choice. He said that had they stuck together, he and Gantz could have replaced Netanyahu with an alternative coalition and passed bills barring him from running again because of his legal situation.

“We don’t have it in our laws because who thought it can be that somebody with three indictments will not step down immediately, just out of courtesy for the people,” he said. “The one thing we didn’t take into account is that he (Gantz) will collapse under the pressure.”

Instead of becoming foreign minister and a major driving force in a new government, Lapid now finds himself on the outside, heading a shrunken opposition comprised of parties with little in common besides their disdain for Netanyahu. Besides Lapid's own condensed Yesh Atid faction, they range from right-wing religious nationalists, to secular advocates of Soviet immigrants to Arab-led parties that reject Israel as a Jewish state.