Ex-NY consul: PM sought to blame Reform for Western Wall row

Labor leader called a ‘lesbian’ by Netanyahu supporters during Tel Aviv tour

PM’s backers also call Merav Michaeli ‘garbage’; man spits on one of her aides; she urges premier to condemn incident; pollster says 15 seats still up for grabs

Supporters of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu heckle Labor party chief Merav Michaeli, as she tours Hatikva Market in Tel Aviv, March 21, 2021. (Screen capture: Twitter)
Supporters of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu heckle Labor party chief Merav Michaeli, as she tours Hatikva Market in Tel Aviv, March 21, 2021. (Screen capture: Twitter)

Labor party leader Merav Michaeli was met Sunday with jeers and heckling during a tour of the Hatikva Market in Tel Aviv two days before the election.

Video showed supporters of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu calling Michaeli a “lesbian” and “garbage” while chanting in support of the Likud leader.

Michaeli’s spokeswoman was spat on by a man at the market. He also spat on the ground near Michaeli, while branding her a “slut,” according to the Ynet news site, which said passersby on electric bikes also drove in the direction of her staff.

The center-left party chief said the Netanyahu supporters also hit her cameraman.

Labor condemned the incident and said it may file a police complaint. Michaeli urged Netanyahu to denounce the incident.

“Violence erodes the foundations of democracy. You were silent in the face of this violence against [assassinated prime minister Yitzhak] Rabin and we all know how this ends. This violence won’t intimidate us,” she said in a video statement.

Labor chief Merav Michaeli during a campaign stop at Hatikva market in Tel Aviv on March 21, 2021. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Critics have accused Netanyahu of frequently inciting against his rivals and their supporters and last week, Likud activists twice violently accosted supporters of the right-wing New Hope party, which is seeking to replace the premier in Tuesday’s election

A number of violent incidents toward demonstrators have also been reported at anti-Netanyahu rallies over the last few months.

Egalitarian prayer at Western Wall and direct Mecca flights

Meanwhile, New Hope candidate Dani Dayan, the former Israeli consul-general in New York, said he refused an order by Netanyahu to blame Reform Jewry for the government’s decision to freeze a plan to build an egalitarian prayer plaza at the Western Wall in 2017.

“When the Western Wall deal was frozen, I was instructed by Prime Minister Netanyahu to blame the Reform” movement, Dayan said at a conference last week, according to a statement released Sunday. “It wasn’t true and therefore I refused, even at the cost of ending my term as consul-general in New York.”

He added: “I told the prime minister that the keys are on the table and if he wants to, let him extend his hand and take them and I will return to Israel. I couldn’t live with a quiet conscience after blaming the Reform [movement] for the suspension of the Western Wall plan.”

There was no response from Netanyahu to Dayan’s assertion.

The government and non-Orthodox Jewish leaders agreed in 2016 to refurbish a pluralistic prayer pavilion at the Western Wall, but Netanyahu later suspended the plan at the behest of his ultra-Orthodox coalition partners.

The prime minister’s decision to freeze the plan was met with outrage from a large swath of Diaspora Jewry, underlining a growing rift between Israel and the US Jewish community.

Dani Dayan at the opening of a conference discussing issues and ways to fight the boycott Israel movement, at the Jerusalem Convention Center, March 28, 2016. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Netanyahu himself, gearing up for the election, on Sunday played up warming ties between Israel and Saudi Arabia ahead of the March 23 election.

“We will have direct flights for Muslim Israeli pilgrims from Tel Aviv to Mecca,” he vowed in an interview with Army Radio.

Israel and Saudi Arabia do not have diplomatic relations, but clandestine ties have strengthened in recent years, as the two countries have confronted a shared threat in Iran. Netanyahu flew to Saudi Arabia in November to meet with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the first publicly reported meeting between the two, as he hinted normalization with the Saudis could be close. Saudi officials have said a peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians must precede its recognition of the Jewish state.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu receives a coronavirus vaccine, from his personal physician Dr. Tzvi Berkovitz, at Sheba Medical Center in Ramat Gan, on December 19, 2020, becoming the first Israeli to get the vaccine. (Amir Cohen/Pool/AFP)

In the radio interview, Netanyahu also declared that Israel would “have no more lockdowns” following its successful vaccination campaign, which has seen over half of Israel’s population get the shots. Netanyahu has made the vaccination drive a central plank of his campaign.

The prime minister also defended Israel’s transfer of vaccines to the Palestinians.

“We are one epidemiological unit. We transferred very few vaccines. This is a very important [move] that any responsible government would do,” he said.

Seats still up in the air

Also Sunday, Channel 13’s pollster Camil Fuchs assessed that ahead of the elections, some 15 seats were still up for grabs.

He noted many Israelis remain undecided, saying 36 percent of voters reported they may yet change their minds on who to cast a ballot for. Another 12% have not decided who to vote for, according to Fuchs, who stressed turnout will be key.

He also said turnout could be boosted by the number of Israelis not traveling overseas due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Final television polls released Friday showed Netanyahu on the cusp of clinching a ruling majority, though he is still not guaranteed one.

Campaign billboards for the left-wing Meretz party are seen off a highway in Tel Aviv on March 21, 2021. (Jack Guez/AFP)

Both the Channel 12 and 13 polls showed Likud and its religious allies at 60 seats, one seat short of a bare minimum majority in the 120-member Knesset. Potential support from the rogue Arab party Ra’am could take the premier over the top, but such an alliance is strongly opposed by the hard right.

Several parties were hovering just above the 3.25% electoral threshold, with any of them dropping below the threshold potentially causing dramatic changes in the overall distribution of seats and helping one side or another build a coalition.

The election — the fourth in two years — was called after the power-sharing government of Likud and Blue and White failed to agree on a budget by a December 23 deadline. The election, like the previous three votes, is largely seen as a referendum on Netanyahu’s rule, given his ongoing trial on corruption charges, as well as his government’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic.

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