Netanyahu, beset by legal woes, launches Likud campaign with solo appearance

PM makes case for reelection days after attorney general announced plans to indict him; ruling party’s candidates to be left offstage so as to keep rival Sa’ar out of the spotlight

Raoul Wootliff is the Times of Israel's former political correspondent and producer of the Daily Briefing podcast.

Benjamin Netanyahu delivers a statement to the media in the Prime Minister House in Jerusalem on February 28, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Benjamin Netanyahu delivers a statement to the media in the Prime Minister House in Jerusalem on February 28, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Benjamin Netanyahu will on Monday night make his case for reelection, officially launching the Likud party’s campaign four days after the attorney general announced his intention to file criminal proceedings against him in a move that has placed a question mark over the premier’s bid to stay in power.

Netanyahu will stand alone onstage at a convention center Tel Aviv, in a move a Likud source said was designed to keep a party rival out of the spotlight, but also highlighting the transformation of the election into what many see as a referendum on his continued rule after a decade in office.

After falling narrowly behind his chief rival Benny Gantz in public opinion polls for the first time, Netanyahu is expected to unveil a new phase of the election campaign that will draw heavily from the attacks on the Blue and White party leader featured thus far in Likud ads.

On Sunday, meeting with currently serving Likud MKs as well as new candidates on the party slate, Netanyahu urged his party to emphasize that Gantz is a “leftist” and to test a slogan calling the elections a choice between “Bibi or [Arab MK Ahmad] Tibi,” who he claims is in cahoots with Blue and White.

“Lapid and Gantz are trying to conceal and disguise, as if they aren’t left-wing,” Netanyahu told Likud lawmakers in a briefing. “If we clarify that truth to the public, Likud will be able to close the gap and win.”

Blue and White party leaders Benny Gantz, left, and Yair Lapid, right, at the new alliance’s unveiling in Tel Aviv on February 21, 2019. (Jack Guez/AFP)

Multiple surveys published over the weekend predicted Likud could be unable to form a governing right-wing coalition after the April 9 elections, dropping several seats as a result of the indictment recommendations. One poll showed Gantz narrowly ahead of Netanyahu on the question of suitability for prime minister, the first time such a result has been seen.

Gantz lashed out at the ruling Likud on Monday, accusing the party of “making things up because it was “taking a nosedive in the polls.”

The Likud campaign launch will take place at the Kfar Maccabiah event hall in Ramat Gan, where the party often hosts events. The venue is smaller than the Tel Aviv convention center, where the party has in the past launched its campaigns. The reason for the switch was not immediately clear.

While the top 30 candidates on Likud’s electoral slate have traditionally appeared onstage alongside Netanyahu as election campaigns launch, Monday evening’s event will keep the roster out of the spotlight. According to a Likud source, Netanyahu will not invite his fellow candidates to join him so he can avoid a public appearance with former minister Gideon Sa’ar who is returning to politics after a four-year hiatus.

In the run-up to the party primary last month, Netanyahu publicly claimed that Sa’ar was planning an internal party putsch to unseat the prime minister, and actively worked to keep him from the top spots on the list. Ultimately finishing fourth in the primary, Sa’ar will be placed fifth on the slate , behind the prime minister who automatically takes the top spot.

Gideon Sa’ar, then Minister of Interior Affairs, speaks during the Interior Affairs Committee meeting at the Knesset about a law proposal for planning and construction, July 16, 2014. (Flash 90)

Sa’ar was notably not invited to Sunday’s meeting of Likud lawmakers and candidates. According to the Ynet news site, Netanyahu had even considered not attending the campaign launch so as to avoid Sa’ar altogether.

In setback for the prime minister, the Central Elections Committee ruled that the planned live broadcast of Netanyahu’s speech, scheduled for 8 p.m. at the top of the prime time newscasts, must air with at least a 10-minute delay to ensure it contains no banned electioneering.

The Labor party, in a petition to the panel, had said that the main news networks — Channel 12, Channel 13 and Kan — should be banned from broadcasting the speech live.  Election campaigning is prohibited by law from being screened in the 60 days before Knesset elections, except for specially designated time slots.

In addition to attacking Blue and White, Netanyahu is also expected to use his speech to hit back at the criminal allegations against him.

Mandelblit announced Thursday that Netanyahu will be charged with criminal wrongdoing in three separate cases against him, including bribery in the far-reaching Bezeq corruption probe, pending a hearing.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (left) and then-cabinet secretary Avichai Mandelblit at a weekly cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem on February 2, 2014. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The decision marks the first time in Israel’s history that a serving prime minister has been told he faces criminal charges, and casts a heavy shadow over Netanyahu’s re-election campaign.

The announcement of Mandelblit’s intention to indict the prime minister, who long argued that the decision should be postponed until after the election so that it would not affect public opinion, places Netanyahu’s legal situation front and center in the campaign.

Responding to the announcement late Thursday, Netanyahu said there was “no explanation” for the timing, coming just 40 days before election day, other than that it was part of a political vendetta designed to oust his right-wing government and install the left.

“For the first time in Israel’s history, a [criminal] hearing process was launched a few weeks, a few days before elections,” he charged. “Everyone can see that the timing is scandalous, intended to topple the right and help the left rise to power. There’s no other explanation for the insistence on this timing. This is their purpose, to flood the public with ridiculous charges against me without giving me the opportunity to disprove the charges until after the elections.”

The criticism, which seems set to become the central theme of Netanyahu’s election campaign, may not, however, resonate with the public.

Protesters outside the Prime Minister’s Residence hold a sign reading “Crime Minister’ as police investigators arrive to question Benjamin Netanyahu, July 10, 2018.(Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

In a Times of Israel poll released last week, just 35 percent of respondents, for example, said they agreed with the following statement: “The investigations into Benjamin Netanyahu are petty and politically motivated. They know he will win the election, so are trying to find other ways to get him out of office.”

By contrast, 47 percent said they agreed with a second statement that said the probes are “extremely serious and should not be taken lightly,” and that if Netanyahu is indicted, “he should immediately step down.”

After Mandelblit’s announcement, Gantz made a public statement that he would not serve in a coalition with a Netanyahu-led Likud, but would join Likud under a different leader. He also called on Netanyahu to resign immediately.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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