Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made clear Friday that he has no intention of losing any more ground to his right wing challenger Naftali Bennett, giving a TV interview in which he slammed the Jewish Home party’s chairman for his apparent justification of insubordination.
Bennett, the charismatic leader of the rising hardline Jewish Home party who still serves in the IDF reserves, has come under fire for a statement he made during an interview Thursday night to the effect that, if commanded to participate in the evacuation of Jewish settlements in the West Bank, he would opt for the path of conscientious objection.
“Anyone who upholds insubordination will not serve in my Cabinet,” said Netanyahu without mentioning Bennett by name, adding that talk of refusing orders was “very grave.” He said Israel’s well-being depends on respect for the IDF. When it was pointed out to him that certain Likud politicians, including likely incoming MK Moshe Feiglin, also favor refusing IDF orders to evacuate settlements, Netanyahu again said nobody who took such a position could serve as a minister in his government.
A month ahead of elections and with his party slowly, but steadily, losing voters to Bennett’s Jewish Home party according to polls, Netanyahu, in the interview with Channel 2 News, indicated that a centerpiece of his reelection strategy will be the assertion that a vote for him will send a message to Israel’s enemies.
Netanyahu denied that the reason for the interview was because he feels Bennett breathing down his neck. “You’ve been asking for an interview for a long time. We’ve been busy, what with Operation Pillar of Defense, the Palestinian Statehood bid at the UN, chemical weapons in the hands of Syria and, of course, Iran. Today, 30 days before the elections, is a good time to say what’s on my mind, so that the public will know where I stand on these and other issues,” said Netanyahu.
When asked to respond to the Likud-Beytenu’s drop in the polls, Netanyahu suggested to wait until election day. “On that day, the citizens of Israel will send a message, not just internally, but to the whole world. Do you know who else will hear the election results? [Iran's President Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad, [Hezbollah chief Hassan] Nasrallah, [Hamas leader Khaled] Mashaal. They will all wait for the polls to close and watch out for one thing, to find out whether the prime minister has strengthened or weakened.”
Netanyahu may well be concerned that since voters assume he’ll be prime minister, hardliners may be tempted to vote for Bennett’s right-wing party in the belief that this will pull a Netanyahu-led coalition to the right. His remarks about excluding people with Bennett’s views on refusing IDF orders seemed designed to indicate that the Jewish Home party might not be an automatic coalition partner. And his reference to extremist Arab leaders who would be watching the election results seemed intended to communicate to voters that he needs their support for his Likud-Beytenu party, and that they should not give their backing to other right-wing parties.
In light of widespread condemnation of Israel by the international community over announcing the approval of thousands of new housing units in East Jerusalem and the West Bank, the prime minister was also asked whether he was weakening Israel’s international relations just so he can beat Bennett in the competition over right-wing votes.
“We [Israel] always built and we always announced our plans. It isn’t just my policy, it is the policy of all the Israeli governments since 1967,” said the prime minister. Netanyahu dismissed as “not serious” the suggestion that he was working on the advice of his political adviser Arthur Finkelstein to garner support from the hard-right by announcing the new housing plans. “It is a matter of principle for me. We live in the Jewish state. Jerusalem has been the capital of the Jewish people for 3,000 years. The Western Wall is not occupied territory, no matter what the UN says. We will build in Jerusalem because it is our right.”
Finally he was asked if he was comfortable with having Avigdor Liberman, a man who is facing a criminal indictment, as his number two.
“A man is presumed innocent. Avigdor Liberman also has a right to prove his innocence in court and I hope he does so,” responded Netanyahu. “He did the right thing in resigning” as foreign minister, said Netanyahu, commending the Yisrael Beytenu leader for seeking to resolve his legal difficulties as soon as possible, so “he can now quickly put it behind him and resume his place.”
The full interview will air on Channel 2 on Saturday.