Rival Benny Gantz's party: He knows his time is up

Launching Likud campaign, Netanyahu warns faithful his premiership is in danger

Leaving AG out of speech, PM says rivals Gantz, Lapid would turn back clock on his achievements; Blue and White hits back: He’s trying to divert attention from pending indictments

Raoul Wootliff is a former Times of Israel political correspondent and Daily Briefing podcast producer.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the launch of his Likud party's election campaign in Ramat Gan, March 4, 2019. (Aharon Krohn/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the launch of his Likud party's election campaign in Ramat Gan, March 4, 2019. (Aharon Krohn/Flash90)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu launched the Likud election campaign on Monday night, presenting the upcoming national ballot as a choice between his own “miracle” premiership that has brought untold prosperity to Israel and “dangerous and irresponsible leftists” who threaten to destroy it.

Notably missing from the speech was any mention of Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit or the legal woes that have dogged him throughout the campaign, and which he has dismissed as part of a left-wing and media conspiracy. Last week Mandelblit said he would charge Netanyahu in three corruption cases, leading to a dip in the polls for Likud.

Speaking for some 40 minutes, Netanyahu focused his attacks on the centrist Blue and White party as threatening his bid to remain in power, desisting from broadsides aimed at rivals on the right. And he shook hands with party rival Gideon Sa’ar, in an apparent effort to smooth over frayed ties with the former minister.

Standing alone on stage as the sole leader of his party and indeed the country, Netanyahu, with Likud currently trailing the Blue and White party in the polls, admitted that victory on April 9 will not be easy, but said over and over again that “we must win,” in order to keep Israel safe and prosperous.

“I have to tell you — it’s not guaranteed, it’s not in our pocket, it will not be simple. It will be a hard battle,” he told the crowd of some 300 Likud activists packed into the Kfar Maccabiah event hall in Ramat Gan.

“We need to win because of our path. We need to win because of our beliefs. We need to win because of the great achievements that have brought Israel to its best situation in its history,” Netanyahu, who has been prime minister since 2009, said to the cheers of the crowd, before listing feats achieved by his government.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the launch of his Likud party’s election campaign in Ramat Gan, March 4, 2019.(Aharon Krohn/Flash90)

Advances made during his 10 years in power, Netanyahu warned, could be “turned backwards” by Blue and White leaders Benny Gantz and Yair Lapid, whom the prime minister mocked as inexperienced, and accused of being charlatans pretending not to be “leftists.”

Either Israel could be led by a “weak, new left-wing party,” supported by Arab Knesset members, who he said seek to destroy Israel, or the electorate could choose “a strong, right-wing government under my leadership,” he said, in a message similar to previous criticism of his rivals.

“Lapid and Gantz are trying to conceal and disguise, as if they aren’t left-wing,” he said.

Urging voters to back Likud, because only Likud could prevent a left-wing government, he challenged the credentials of both Gantz and Lapid, fiercely attacked their policies, and castigated their ostensible positions.

He cited Labor prime ministers Yitzhak Rabin and Ehud Barak as examples of previous left-wing generals, “posing as rightists and talking of unity,” whose leadership had been disastrous for Israel. “We’ve been here twice before,” he said. “In 1992, we got Rabin and [the] Oslo [accords with the PLO],” and in 1999, Barak, “the intifada, exploding buses, and over 1,000 fatalities.”

Gantz, like Rabin and Barak, is a former IDF chief of staff, and Blue and White has two other ex-IDF chiefs in its ranks — Gabi Ashkenazi and the former Likud defense minister Moshe Ya’alon. It wouldn’t matter if they had “10 former chiefs of staff” in Blue and White, Netanyahu asserted, since they all lacked his experience in running the country.

Citing his own diplomatic experience, the premier said he had personally withstood eight years of pressure from former US president Barack Obama to make concessions to the Palestinians.

Gantz and Lapid, on the other hand, “wouldn’t have lasted 15 minutes,” he claimed.

Benny Gantz, left, and Yair Lapid of the newly-formed Blue and White alliance give a joint a statement to the press in Tel Aviv on February 21, 2019. (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)

He said that Lapid and Gantz had supported the P5+1 nuclear deal with Iran — Gantz is not known to have done so, and Lapid did not — while he had opposed it and now the US president did, too. He also claimed that Gantz had opposed the upgrading of Israel’s security fence on the Egyptian border — an assertion Blue and White rejects. Without that fence, Israel would have been “flooded with illegal migrants from Africa,” Netanyahu said.

Responding to the speech, the Blue and White party said that Netanyahu was “spreading lies and incitement” in order to “divert the conversation from the investigation and the indictment he now faces.”

“Netanyahu knows he’ll be going to trial within a year. He knows his time is up. Instead of worrying about the deteriorating health system, the long lines at the ER, the cost of living, he is only worried about himself,” the party said in a statement. “Israel is desperately waiting for moral and responsible leadership that will care about the everyday life of its citizens, and not with speeches riddled with hate.”

Opposition leader MK Shelly Yachimovitch (Labor) also slammed the speech, saying that Netanyahu had “broken records of dividing [the public] and [creating] rifts, as well as of narcissism, detachment and a lack of awareness.”

Besides lashing the Blue and White party repeatedly over more than 40 minutes on its security policies, Netanyahu also criticized it for its “leftist” economic policies, and for including labor union leader Avi Nissenkorn high on its list.

He said his government will “continue lowering taxes” and working for a free market economy.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the launch of his Likud party’s election campaign in Ramat Gan, March 4, 2019.(Aharon Krohn/Flash90)

While thanking many of his Likud ministers for their contribution to the success, Netanyahu stood alone onstage, albeit in front of photos of the top 40 candidate’s on the party’s list.

The top 30 candidates on Likud’s electoral slate have traditionally appeared onstage alongside Netanyahu as election campaigns launch but Monday evening’s event kept the roster somewhat out of the spotlight. According to a Likud source, Netanyahu did not invite his fellow candidates to join him so he could avoid a public appearance with former minister Gideon Sa’ar, who is returning to politics after a four-year hiatus and who Netanyahu has claimed is seeking to oust him.

The two nonetheless shook hands as Netanyahu made his way onto the stage.

“C’mon, it’s time to work together,” Netanyahu told Sa’ar, according to his office.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shakes hand with Gideon Saar at the launch of his Likud party’s election campaign in Ramat Gan, March 4, 2019. (Jack GUEZ / AFP)

In the run-up to the party primary last month, Netanyahu publicly claimed that Sa’ar was planning an internal party putsch to unseat the prime minister, and actively worked to keep him from the top spots on the list. Ultimately finishing fourth in the primary, Sa’ar will be placed fifth on the slate, behind the prime minister who automatically takes the top spot.

As has been Netanyahu’s practice for years, he accused the media of being behind an attempt to take him from power, but notably made no direct mention of the criminal charges he may face in three investigations against him.

The speech came four days after the attorney general announced his intention to file criminal proceedings against Netanyahu.

“I have never seen this sort of conscription of the left and the media,” he charged as the crowd chanted “they are afraid,” in a throwback to a slogan he used to criticize the media in his unsuccessful 1999 reelection campaign. “They know that against our success, they can’t beat us in a fair game.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the launch of his Likud party’s election campaign in Ramat Gan, March 4, 2019. (Aharon Krohn/Flash90)

In the only reference to his legal woes, Netanyahu said that the media and the left “are trying to take me off the playing field so that the Likud will fall from power. But as you saw, there was nothing new in the false accusation against me.”

Mandelblit announced Thursday that Netanyahu will be charged with criminal wrongdoing in three separate cases against him, including bribery in the far-reaching Bezeq corruption probe, pending a hearing.

The decision marks the first time in Israel’s history that a serving prime minister has been told he faces criminal charges, and casts a heavy shadow over Netanyahu’s re-election campaign.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (left) and then-cabinet secretary Avichai Mandelblit at a weekly cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem on February 2, 2014. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The announcement of Mandelblit’s intention to indict the prime minister, who long argued that the decision should be postponed until after the election so that it would not affect public opinion, places Netanyahu’s legal situation front and center in the campaign.

Multiple surveys published over the weekend predicted Likud could be unable to form a governing right-wing coalition after the April 9 elections, dropping several seats as a result of the indictment recommendations. One poll showed Gantz narrowly ahead of Netanyahu on the question of suitability for prime minister, the first time such a result has been seen since Gantz entered politics.

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