A controversial campaign ad by the Blue and White party has exposed cracks within the centrist alliance, with party leader Benny Gantz on Monday issuing thinly veiled criticism of his No. 2, Yair Lapid, for sharing the video accused of featuring anti-Semitic tropes.
On Sunday, Lapid posted the spot that poked fun at the Likud party for forcing its candidates in the upcoming elections to sign a loyalty oath backing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. It portrayed a fictional group chat in the popular messaging service, WhatsApp, in which leaders of several small parties are asked to swear to support the candidacy of “Benjamin Netanyahu, the first of his name, messenger of God, leader of the right and father of dragons.”
In the video, Shas chairman Aryeh Deri responds by saying, “You want me to sign? Give another trillion shekels for the yeshivas” while United Torah Judaism chairman Yaakov Litzman says, “I want all the money in Israel.”
The clip also portrayed nationalist lawmaker Betzalel Smotrich demanding the annexation of the settlements and his party’s leader, Ayelet Shaked, demanding that Netanyahu weaken the High Court of Justice.
פאניקה בבלפור pic.twitter.com/o5mfk1rPXR
— יאיר לפיד – Yair Lapid (@yairlapid) August 4, 2019
On Monday, Blue and White chief Gantz offered implicit criticism of his partner and deputy in the party leadership, tweeting: “The strength of Israeli society comes from its unity, including all sectors — secular and religious, Jews and non-Jews, left and right. That is the appropriate way for Israel’s leadership to behave at this time.”
Mentioning the upcoming Tisha B’Av fast, in which Jews mourn the destruction of both the First and Second Temples, Gantz noted the saying that the Temple fell due to senseless hatred within the nation of Israel, and said: “We should adopt a different style from that of Netanyahu and focus on gratuitous love.”
Blue and White No. 3 Moshe Ya’alon also said that the ad was “not my style nor that of Gantz,” adding that they were “not in favor of hate discourse.”
Blue and White MK Asaf Zamir likewise told the ultra-Orthodox Kol Barama radio that the video was “not my style and I wouldn’t have made it.”
However, Lapid — who under a rotation deal with Gantz will serve as prime minister in two and a half years if the party wins the September elections, be tasked with forming a coalition, and succeed in that task — refused to back down, in several media appearances and statements on Monday. He insisted that the ad had just been a joke and that others — including Netanyahu and ultra-Orthodox lawmakers — have in the past made more offensive remarks about him.
On Monday evening, the Kan public broadcaster reported that Gantz has in recent days criticized Lapid and accused him of hurting the party’s campaign. Lapid, Gantz was quoted as saying, “unfortunately doesn’t understand that we need the ultra-Orthodox and that is the way to win.”
The report said Gantz had sat down with Lapid on Monday, before issuing his response to the media, and expressed anger that he had not coordinated the release of the video with Blue and White campaign staff.
However, the report also quoted sources within Lapid’s Yesh Atid faction as saying the video was coordinated, and that Gantz’s team was spooked because “they are not as good at campaigns.”
The Shas ultra-Orthodox party filed a complaint against Lapid with the Central Elections Committee, alleging incitement. The committee on Monday ordered Lapid to respond to the complaint by Wednesday.
Netanyahu also responded to the video on Monday, writing on Twitter: “The incitement by the prime ministerial candidate Yair Lapid, phrased with an anti-Semitic tone, proves once again why Yair Lapid cannot be allowed to be prime minister.”
Haredi leaders have similarly accused Lapid of dabbling in anti-Semitic stereotypes.
“Anti-Semitism — there is no other word,” Deri responded to the video on Twitter.
Litzman likewise called the ad anti-Semitic, declaring that it had crossed a “red line” and that it was reminiscent of “dark periods in which Jews were portrayed as greedy persecutors.”
Lapid responded quickly, stating that he was unwilling to accept criticism from someone who “protects pedophiles,” a reference to allegations that Litzman, the deputy health minister, had improperly protected sex offenders in at least 10 cases.
“I’m also not impressed that they scream ‘hate, hate’ every time someone criticizes them. There is real anti-Semitism in the world: Jews are shot in synagogues. This is not anti-Semitism. We will continue to fight for Israel as a Jewish, democratic, free and liberal state.” Lapid said that what he described as the humorous clip was part of legitimate political campaigning.
Despite the criticism by the prime minister, Lapid doubled down on the video and attacked Netanyahu later on Monday.
“Unbelievable. Netanyahu, the biggest inciter in Israel’s history, attacks me for a WhatsApp joke,” Lapid tweeted. “Hey Bibi, should I start bringing quotes? The venom and hate you have been spewing for years into the Israeli society? Besides, the joke is about the billions you gave ultra-Orthodox wheeler-dealers, which means [the joke] wasn’t at their expense at all, but at our expense.”
תשובת יהדות התורה לסרטון של לפיד pic.twitter.com/i2dUwBRVmG
— דפנה ליאל (@DaphnaLiel) August 5, 2019
The ultra-Orthodox party United Torah Judaism issued a similar video Monday in response, mocking internal divisions within Blue and White and portraying members as saying that in order to bring back voters who transferred their support to Avigdor Liberman’s Yisrael Beytenu, the party “must bash the Haredim again.”
“We can bash them all day. It’s a voter magnet!” Lapid is staged as saying in the mock WhatsApp conversation.