'Prevent a pointless third election desired only by one man'

Gantz warns Netanyahu is risking ‘internal war,’ calls Likud to unity coalition

‘Man who led incitement campaign against Rabin should know the dangerous price of words that can turn into bullets,’ says rival, accusing PM of trying to ‘hold Israel hostage’

Blue and White chairman Benny Gantz delivers a statement to the press in Tel Aviv, on November 23, 2019 (Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Blue and White chairman Benny Gantz delivers a statement to the press in Tel Aviv, on November 23, 2019 (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Blue and White party leader Benny Gantz on Saturday accused Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of holding the people of Israel “hostage” to his legal troubles and “risking an internal war” to stay in power, while urging the leaders of Likud to “make your voices heard” and join him in a unity government.

In an 8 p.m. address, Gantz launched a scathing attack on the premier following Netanyahu’s Thursday press conference — held shortly after Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit announced he would indict him for corruption — in which the prime minister accused prosecutors of mounting “an attempted coup” against his rule, by framing him through a “tainted” process.

“No Israeli leader, right or left, ever dared to imagine the state belonged to him, that without him it had no right to exist. None of them ever conceived of pitting brother against brother, inciting brother against brother, calling explicitly or implicitly to hurt one another,” Gantz said. “The State of Israel and the people of Israel are not under the private ownership of any leader.”

The former IDF chief said he had been “pained but proud” while listening to Mandelblit read the charges against Netanyahu. He acknowledged that Netanyahu had shown patriotism throughout his life and public service and said “he deserves thanks and appreciation” for it.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu responds to the decision to indict him in corruption cases, November 21, 2019 (TV screenshot)

“But a true patriot would not hold the people of Israel hostage to his legal fight,” Gantz added.

Gantz charged that Netanyahu, throughout his career, “trampled” on his political opponents. “He is the last one who can now recruit public support to incite against investigators, to incite against judges, to incite against prosecutors.”

He said “the man who led a harsh and painful incitement campaign against [late] prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, a campaign that ended in a terrible national disaster, should well know the dangerous price of words, that could heaven-forbid turn into deadly bullets.

“I call to the leaders of Likud: I respect you and call for a partnership with you, even if we do not agree on everything… Now is the time to put your fears aside and past threats aside and march Israeli society to a new era of healing.”

Netanyahu, he said, “is risking igniting an internal war between us. In the face of his calls of incitement and hate, I stand here before you in the name of many people from right and left and tell you: It’s time to heal Israeli society.”

He urged Likud to support a unity government under his leadership “to prevent a pointless third election desired only by one man, contrary to what the people want, contrary to what the people need.”

Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit addresses the press after announcing his decision to indict Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with bribery, fraud and breach of trust, at the justice ministry in Jerusalem on November 21, 2019 (Menahem KAHANA / AFP)

Gantz offered a power-sharing government in which he would serve the first two years as prime minister. Afterwards, if Netanyahu had cleared himself of all wrongdoing in court, Gantz said, he was welcome to retake the reins of power for the remaining two years.

Gantz wished Netanyahu a complete exoneration from all suspicions. But in the meantime, he said, “I demand that he respect his defeat in the election, respect the decisions of the legal system led by people he himself appointed, respect the desires of the majority of the country, resign his position and fight to prove his innocence.”

Likud, in a terse response, said Gantz had already failed to form a government. “If Blue and White presents a different chairman, we will consider offering them to be first in a rotation.”

In his televised remarks Thursday Netanyahu said he’d “given my life for this country, I fought for this country, was wounded for this country.”

And while he said he deeply respected the country’s justice system, he added that “you have to be blind not to see that something bad is happening to police investigators and the prosecution.”

Supporters of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu demonstrate outside the Tel Aviv Museum on November 9, 2019. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

The “tainted investigation process, including inventing new crimes, has reached its apex today. It horrifies not only me, but masses of citizens in Israel, and not only on the right… This tainted process raises questions among the public about the police’s investigations and the prosecution. The public has lost trust in these institutions. It’s a process that’s taken place over many years. This is selective enforcement on steroids. It’s enforcement just for me.”

Netanyahu called to establish an independent commission to investigate the conduct of investigators in his cases.

His speech was met with outrage by opposition legislators who said he was undermining the institutions that form the very base of democracy.

On Friday he issued a slightly more tempered statement, vowing to respect the courts but reiterating his assertion that the decision to indict him had been reached by illegal means and that the investigators should be investigated.

On Friday Channel 12 reported that several senior Likud lawmakers have been meeting behind the scenes in a bid to try and oust Netanyahu following the attorney general’s explosive Thursday announcement.

According to the report, which did not cite sources, the senior Likud officials are convinced “the Netanyahu era is over” and are working to try dethrone him as head of the party within the current 21-day period allotted for the Knesset to agree on a prime minister before Israel is forced to go to new elections.

Channel 13 reported similar backroom talks, with one unnamed person saying: “We are trying to figure out how to wrest the party from his hands.”

And in the greatest challenge to Netanyahu yet by a figure inside his party, MK Gideon Sa’ar on Saturday castigated Netanyahu for describing the charges against him as an attempted coup, demanded an immediate leadership contest in their ruling Likud party, and claimed he could “easily form a government.”

Likud MK Gideon Sa’ar, speaking during a conference in Tel Aviv on September 5, 2019. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

The Likud lawmaker warned that Netanyahu’s response to the criminal charges announced by Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit on Thursday, in which the prime minister has claimed he is being framed and has demanded that the law enforcement agencies who investigated him should themselves be probed, was irresponsible and dangerous.

“This is not an attempted coup. That is not accurate,” said Sa’ar. “It is not responsible to make this claim. It harms the Likud’s statesmanlike approach. It aims not for reform but to destroy the law enforcement hierarchies.”

“You cannot call a decision by the attorney general an attempted coup,” Sa’ar insisted, noting that Mandelblit is “a man of integrity” and a Netanyahu appointee. “This is causing chaos in the country,” Sa’ar warned.

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