A former head of the Mossad fired off harsh criticism of Israelis who voted for the ruling Likud party in April’s elections, saying they were “ignorant” and had low moral standards, a statement that drew condemnation from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
“His [Netanyahu’s] voters are ignorant people, with zero understanding. His political base is people whose moral standards are almost nonexistent,” Shabtai Shavit told the Maariv newspaper in extracts released Thursday from a wide-ranging interview to be published Friday.
The comments came after the former spymaster was asked a question about newly appointed Transportation Minister Bezalel Smotrich, to which he responded that the problem lay with the prime minister, who received broad public support in elections in April despite facing an indictment for corruption, pending a hearing.
“Are you willing to live in the State of Israel he describes? I will not stay for a minute in Smotrich’s Israel,” Shavit said. “But my war is with the Likud party headed by Netanyahu, not Smotrich.”
Smotrich on Monday said he “works for God” — and not for Netanyahu, who appointed him — after drawing outrage and ridicule for calling for Israel to be governed by Jewish religious law, like in biblical times.
Smotrich’s Union of Right-Wing Parties launched an aggressive campaign for him to receive the justice portfolio in the government, saying that Smotrich’s background in law made him a natural fit for the position. But after Smotrich’s controversial remarks calling for Israel to be ruled by Jewish law, Netanyahu tapped Likud loyalist Amir Ohana for the justice post.
Smotrich has been lobbying several right-wing factions to unite and run on a single ticket for September elections to increase the number of seats they can win and better drive nationalist agendas, such as annexing the West Bank.
According to Shavit, many West Bank settlers would in fact agree to leave their homes under the right circumstances.
“But in Judea and Samaria there is a religious force, even messianic,” he said, using the biblical name for the West Bank. “And the religious institutions in Judea and Samaria are God’s command. I despise them because that is not true Judaism.”
Netanyahu, in response to Shavit’s comments, invoked a series of past instances in which Likud voters or activists were addressed in disparaging terms.
“They called us chah’chahim, amulet-kissers and bots, and now we’re ‘ignorant people,’ he said in a brief statement. “There’s no end to the left’s condescension toward Likud voters. Our response will come in the ballot booth.”
The first term was an allusion to a famous incident ahead of the 1981 election in which Israeli TV personality Dudu Topaz branded Likud voters “chah’chahim” at a Labor party rally, drawing a fiery counter-speech from then-Likud leader Menachem Begin. The second referred to a speech by artist Yair Garbuz ahead of the 2015 Knesset elections, in which he referred to right-wing Israelis as “amulet-kissers.” The third was a reference to a report on the eve of the previous elections in April regarding allegedly fake social media accounts that supported Netanyahu’s campaign.
Smotrich also responded to Shavit, tweeting: “Fear comes from ignorance. Let’s meet for coffee — I’m sure after an hour of conversation and acquaintance you will decide that you will gladly remain in my Land of Israel as well. And I think you should apologize for your condescending statement against those who vote for Netanyahu.”
Shavit, in a subsequent interview Thursday morning, would not take back his comments regarding Likud voters, though he did apologize for any hurt they may have caused. Alluding to the pending charges against Netanyahu, he told Army Radio that “there is something wrong with the morality” of people who voted for him.
“No truly moral person can abide a leadership with low moral standards,” he said, adding that prime ministers should have high ethical standards by definition.
The Knesset voted to disband itself and called new elections for September 17, after Netanyahu failed to broker a compromise between right-wing secular Yisrael Beytenu and ultra-Orthodox parties in the wake of the April 9 elections.
Shavit, 79, who ran the Mossad from 1989 to 1996, has criticized Netanyahu in the past. In 2015 he blasted the prime minister for his handling of Iran and relations with the US under then-president Barack Obama, as well as what he called the Netanyahu administration’s failure to defend residents of southern Israel from attacks from Gaza’s Hamas terrorist organization.
Netanyahu is facing a pending indictment for corruption — including one count of bribery — in three cases, one of which involves gifts from wealthy associates, with the other two involving potential quid pro quo deals for regulatory favors in exchange for positive media coverage.