Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Sunday accused the lawmakers of the Joint List of seeking to “destroy the country” as he stepped up his verbal assault on the majority-Arab party, which the Blue and White party would have to rely on if it were to form a minority government in the three days it has left to cobble together a coalition.
“At the same time that our soldiers were putting their lives in danger, [the Blue and White leadership] held negotiations with the very members of Knesset who support the terror organizations and who want to destroy the country,” Netanyahu told hundreds of supporters at a Likud rally, without providing proof for his accusation.
While some Joint List MKs spoke out against Israel’s targeted killing of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad terror group’s senior commander Baha Abu al-Ata as well as the IDF’s airstrikes in Gaza, none of them expressed support for Islamic Jihad or its targeting of Israeli civilians.
At the beginning of his remarks, the prime minister clarified that he differentiated between Israel’s Arab citizens and the party that many of them chose to represent them in the Knesset. Still, Netanyahu’s claim that the Joint List MKs seek to “destroy the country” echoed a message sent out by his Facebook chatbot ahead of the last election, warning against a possible “secular left-wing weak government that relies on Arabs who want to destroy us all — women, children and men.” Facebook temporarily suspended the chatbot and Netanyahu later denied he had anything to do with the message, blaming it on a campaign staffer.
His remarks on Sunday evening were apparently made off the cuff as they were not included in the transcript that Netanyahu’s spokesman sent to members of the press.
Likud organizers of Sunday’s gathering at the Tel Aviv Expo convention center called it at “emergency rally” aimed at “stopping the dangerous minority government that is reliant on terror supporters.”
Netanyahu claimed that such a coalition “will be celebrated in Tehran, Ramallah, in Gaza, just as they celebrate every terror attack.
“But this will be a national historic terror attack on the State of Israel,” he continued to jeers from the crowd.
The Likud chief said that while he does not want another election, a Joint List-backed government would be worse. Such a government would be an “existential threat” to Israel, he asserted.
Reacting to the fiery speech, Joint List chairman Ayman Odeh tweeted, “There won’t be a ‘Benjamin junction’ or ‘Netanyahu high school.’ This evening he sealed his legacy as a bitter criminal who doesn’t know how to lose, only to harm and incite against those he was supposed to serve.”
“All of us, Arabs and our Jewish partners, will breath a sigh of relief the day [Netanyahu] goes and we’ll continue to fight for peace, equality, democracy and social justice,” added Odeh.
The Blue and White party said in a statement, “Residents of the south did not get a ’emergency rally,’ neither did the sick who are strewn in [hospital] corridors, nor the elderly or disabled.
“As usual, Netanyahu only cares about Netanyahu,” the party concluded.
The crowd at the Tel Aviv Expo was largely male and middle-aged. Supporters waved Israeli and Likud flags and danced to an assortment of pop Mizrahi tunes that blasted over the loudspeakers as they waited for the speeches to begin.
In between and even during some of the songs, the loyal attendees chanted, “Bibi, king of Israel. Long may he live!” and “The people demand legal justice,” referencing their disgust with the State Prosecutor’s Office’s handling of the criminal probes of the prime minister, in which charges are widely expected to be filed in the coming days.
In what appeared to be an Israeli equivalent of the “lock her up” calls against presidential candidate Hillary Clinton heard at rallies for US President Donald Trump, dozens of attendees held signs calling for the jailing of Deputy State Prosecutor Liat Ben Ari and the interrogation of State Attorney Shai Nitzan.
While the theme of the rally centered around the alleged threat of a Joint List-backed minority government, attendees who spoke to The Times of Israel said their main reason for coming was to support the prime minister amid the “preposterous” criminal proceedings he faces.
“What the prosecution is doing to Bibi is simply unbelievable. They drew a target on his back the moment he entered office and will stop at nothing to take him down,” said Tal Shafrir. The 64-year-old Ramat Aviv resident had written the letter “B” on each of her hands along with several of her friends in a show of support for Netanyahu, whose nickname is “Bibi.”
Speaking on the condition of anonymity, one former Likud official present recognized that the event was “poorly attended.”
“It’s a rally for Bibi. That’s why this place isn’t full,” he said, explaining that those who chose to attend were mainly die-hard supporters of the prime minister.
Following Netanyahu’s failure to form a coalition in the aftermath of September’s inconclusive elections, Blue and White leader Benny Gantz was charged with the task. He has until Wednesday to clinch a coalition, after which Knesset members may choose a candidate to be given the mandate or decide to head back to elections — the third in less than a year.
In a twist of fate, this week or early next week will also likely see Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit announce his decision on whether to charge the premier in three corruption cases, according to reports, further complicating Netanyahu’s position, since Gantz has vowed not to sit in a government under a prime minister facing criminal charges.
Netanyahu’s campaign is seemingly aimed at leaving Gantz with no choice but to agree to a unity government with the Likud leader remaining as prime minister or admit his failure to form a coalition and risk new elections.
After the weekly cabinet meeting Sunday morning, Netanyahu met with his 55 MK-strong bloc of allied religious and ultra-Orthodox parties. The premier has insisted on holding negotiations with Blue and White only as part of that broader bloc and not just as Likud leader — one of the reasons unity talks have not yielded even minimal progress.
Gantz has no realistic path to forming a majority coalition without Likud, though he could presumably form a minority government with the external backing of the predominantly Arab Joint List.
However, a minority government hinges on the support of Yisrael Beytneu chairman Avigdor Liberman, who has previously campaigned on tough policies against Arab Israelis and who regularly denounces Joint List MKs as illegitimate political figures.
Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.