Blue and White party leader Benny Gantz on Monday blasted Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu over his increasingly incendiary campaign rhetoric, which has drawn accusations of racism and incitement.
Gantz, Netanyahu’s main election rival, said the iconic Likud party founder and former prime minister Menachem Begin — whose death on March 9, 1992, was commemorated by Netanyahu’s Likud party Monday morning — would “have already kicked [Netanyahu] out of the party.”
“Let’s be honest, [Begin] would not fit in with Netanyahu’s Likud, he would be considered an enemy of Israel,” Gantz said in a Facebook post. “What would Netanyahu’s false and inciting campaign videos look like to Begin today?”
He called Begin a “humble Israeli patriot and right-wing leader” who was “disgusted by Kahanists, defended Israeli democracy, maintained security and sought peace.”
Gantz said Begin’s “unifying legacy” was nothing like Netanyahu’s “regime of incitement and divisiveness.”
Netanyahu, under threat of indictment for corruption, is facing a tough challenge from the centrist political alliance led by Gantz and ex-finance minister Yair Lapid.
Netanyahu’s election campaign has been dominated by his incendiary attacks on the media, political opponents, the police, the state prosecution and Israel’s Arab minority.
Netanyahu has sought to portray Gantz as a candidate who would usher in a “weak” leftist government with the support of the Knesset’s Arab parties, which are seen by many on the right as disloyal to the Jewish state.
In videos uploaded to his social media accounts, Netanyahu frequently claims Blue and White will forge alliances with Arab parties in a bid to oust him from power and will make significant concessions to the Palestinians.
He has also drawn widespread criticism for courting anti-Arab extremists in hopes of improving his reelection chances. Last month, he was instrumental in brokering a controversial unity pact between the Jewish Home party and the extremist Otzma Yehudit (Jewish Power), in a bid to boost the number of seats held by right-wing parties after the elections, with an eye to his next potential coalition government.
As part of the deal, Netanyahu gave the merged party a seat on his Likud party’s slate of candidates and guaranteed it two cabinet positions if he wins.
Otzma Yehudit’s leadership is made up of disciples of the US-born rabbi Meir Kahane, whose Jewish supremacist Kach party was banned under Israeli law for anti-Arab incitement and later declared a terrorist group.
On Sunday, Netanyahu faced further criticism for saying that Israel “was not a state of all its citizens” in a reference to the country’s Arab population.
Netanyahu was engaging in a social media argument with reality TV show host Rotem Sela, after she criticized his Likud party’s anti-Arab rhetoric.
Though he noted that all Israeli citizens, including Arabs, have equal rights under the law, Netanyahu in his comments referred to a deeply controversial piece of legislation passed last year declaring Israel the nation-state of the Jewish people.
“Israel is not a state of all its citizens,” he wrote in an Instagram post responding to Sela’s comments. “According to the basic nationality law we passed, Israel is the nation-state of the Jewish people.”
On Monday, Netanyahu hit back at the mounting criticism of his remarks, telling Likud lawmakers that a Gantz-Lapid premiership was a “horrifying” prospect.
“We know well what works and what doesn’t work,” he said at a Likud faction meeting, held at Jerusalem’s Menachem Begin Heritage Center in commemoration of the anniversary of the Likud founder’s death.
“People don’t understand that a vote for Gantz-Lapid is actually a vote for Lapid as prime minister,” Netanyahu said. (Gantz would serve first as prime minister if Blue and White forms the next government, with Lapid taking over after two and a half years.)
Last week, Gantz reached out to the Druze communities in northern Israel, telling the Arabic-speaking minority that that his party would work to uphold equality in Israel.
In an apparent reference to the contentious nation-state law, which many Druze and Arab Israelis have blasted as discriminatory, Gantz said his party has “heard and listened to your very basic demand for equality.”
“Unfortunately, there are extreme elements on the right and the left trying to split Israeli society,” Gantz said Thursday during a visit to the town of Daliyat al-Karmel. “We will present to the citizens of the State of Israel an alliance of hope.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.