Likud’s Barkat: Both sides have crossed the line in overly hostile campaigns
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Interview

Likud’s Barkat: Both sides have crossed the line in overly hostile campaigns

Focusing on rival party’s economic plans rather than mudslinging, former Jerusalem mayor claims ‘socialistic’ Blue and White will take Israeli economy backwards

Raoul Wootliff is the The Times of Israel's political correspondent.

Likud MK Nir Barkat attends a faction meeting ahead of the swearing-in of the new Knesset on April 30, 2019. (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)
Likud MK Nir Barkat attends a faction meeting ahead of the swearing-in of the new Knesset on April 30, 2019. (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)

Registering to run in the Likud primaries at the start of this year, former Jerusalem mayor Nir Barkat declared his willingness to do whatever it takes to help bring about the reelection of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Now the Knesset freshman admits that after nine full months of campaigning, he has discovered limits to what he is willing to do for political gain — limits that he says were crossed by both his own party and its rivals as they sought the public’s votes.

“It is not my personal way,” Barkat said Sunday, when asked if he was happy with the combative and often hostile campaign run by Netanyahu. He added that both sides were guilty of going to extremes.

“Well, generally I think all sides in these elections, both in April and now, if you’re asking me, have sometimes crossed a line that I think should not be crossed,” Barkat said. “And the nature of campaigns is people taking their messaging to the extreme.”

Throughout the five months since April’s election, and in the run-up to that vote too, Netanyahu has sought to besmirch his rivals, releasing numerous video clips of them stuttering during interviews or just looking shady while ominous music and voice-overs are heard in the background. He has labeled anyone who opposes him, or even suggests supporting him as head of a unity government, as a “leftist” and has referred to the democratic process of potentially voting him out of office as an effort to “topple” or “overthrow” him. At the same time, the prime minister has increased his rhetoric against the Arab parties, warning that his rivals will form a “leftist Arab government,” and was even sanctioned by Facebook for disseminating racist messages against Israel’s millions of Arab citizens.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (2L) seen with Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat (C) and Jerusalem Minister Zeev Elkin (L) during a special cabinet meeting in Jerusalem on June 2, 2016. (Marc Israel Sellem/POOL)

Preferring to focus instead on the different economic approach between Likud and Blue and White, Barkat said while his own party was “focused on expanding the pie, opening markets, and we have a lot of experience doing that,” its chief rivals offered “a socialistic approach headed by inexperienced economic leadership.”

And while stressing that he didn’t believe that Blue and White leader Benny Gantz would be able to form a coalition after the government, Barkat insisted that regardless of the election results, he would not serve as a minister in a government headed by the party, “Period.”

The following is a lightly edited transcript of the interview, which was held in a mixture of Hebrew and English

Times of Israel: So it’s just a matter of days until the election. What’s the Likud message to the people of Israel for the final days of the campaign?

Well, right now I would say that we’re talking to the people that have not yet decided, reminding them that the key challenge we have in these elections is who’s going to lead the country in the next term. On one hand, we’ve got Netanyahu and Likud and the right-wing government that has many successful accomplishments in the last decade, and on the other side, you have inexperienced left-of-center people that have a very different view on both international [relations] and economics and integrating that into security.

Supporters of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu march at the Mahane Yehuda market in Jerusalem on September 13, 2019. (Menahem Kahana/AFP)

So the key question is — who do you want to lead the country? Do you want to continue the path we’re on or not? The discussions we have with people that are still undecided probably will take us to the last day, until Tuesday.

The second message we have is get out to vote. The turnout percentage is probably going to be significant in terms of the results of these elections. So convincing the unconvinced, the people that did not decide yet, and getting the people out to vote are the two messages we’re working on.

Some would say that the most important question this election is not who’s going to be prime minister but the basic services of the state: the health and education systems, transportation and infrastructure — the things that affect Israelis every day — and that’s something we’ve heard very little about from Likud: no manifesto, no plan for the health service, no budget increase for the Education Ministry. Why are those messages being left out of the main Likud campaign?

Well, I don’t think they are. I think that when you campaign, you focus on the big picture, on the big messaging, which is that Likud supports a liberal economy, a very clear, right-of-center ideology, and our messages are very clear. If you look back in retrospect, you see that we are focused on expanding the pie, opening markets, and we have a lot of experience doing that.

On the other hand, Blue and White and the left wing are socialistic in their approach in many, many ways, and they are focusing on how to spend money we do not have, while we’re focusing on expanding the pie and investing in increasing the GDP, and then managing the capital we do have. It’s a fundamental, big difference, and many Israelis are deeply concerned that if we change our liberal approach headed by Netanyahu to a socialistic approach headed by inexperienced economic leadership, like Avi Nissenkorn [a former Histadrut Labor Union head and current Blue and White MK], that may take us backwards.

An election campaign billboard for the Likud party shows Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and US President Donald Trump, facing a road sign directing traffic to the West Bank Israeli settlement of Ofra, north of Ramallah, September 11, 2019 (AP Photo/Nasser Nasser)

We are focusing on that. I, personally, as an entrepreneur and as mayor of Jerusalem and a experienced business person, there is no doubt in my mind that our messaging and our approach is the right one, especially on the economic side.

Before the April election and again now, there’s been criticism of the tone of some of the campaigns, particularly Likud’s, that it’s been overly hostile, and created division by delegitimizing political rivals and focusing on political spin rather than substance. Do you feel happy with the way the Likud campaign has been run?

Well, generally I think all sides in these elections, both in April and now, if you’re asking me, have sometimes crossed a line that I think should not be crossed. And the nature of campaigns is people taking their messaging to the extreme. It is not my personal way, but it’s from both sides.

I think Blue and White on the left right now does not have a lot to offer. So its whole attitude is anti-Bibi and to try and stain Prime Minister Netanyahu, and maybe the common denominator on the left side is hatred toward Netanyahu, and that is something that stirs the right-of-center camp to fight back.

Blue and White party leader Benny Gantz speaks at a campaign rally in Tel Aviv on September 15, 2019. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

I hope and believe that the right thing to do is to really compare the two different approaches. Our approach, which is again very strong on opening up global markets and working very closely with the world leaders like Netanyahu was doing, is strongly tied to a liberal open market economy and strong security. The other camp does not have the capability to convince the Israeli public that they have a lot to offer, and all they’re focusing on is a negative campaign against Netanyahu. And, again, it turns out that people sometimes cross lines, and when they do, I feel uncomfortable with that, but that’s the nature of the campaign.

With that “nature of the campaign” and the divisive public discourse, there’s an argument that after the election, the best thing for the Israeli public would be a national unity government to try and heal some of those divisions. Why is a national unity government not an option?

Because I think we need a very strong right-wing government with a very clear statement as to how to work with our neighbors, how to integrate Israel’s challenges. So I as a Likud member would like to see, first and foremost, a right-wing government, and then I would actually would be happy to see if we could expand circles. The people from the left, i.e., Blue and White, will never be able to get into power unless they join Likud.

So from their perspective, there’s only one option, which is a unity government. From our perspective, the first and only option is to have a right-wing government, but then to expand circles and see if we could get more and more people aligned with our vision. This is something that will be on the table, but not instead of our partners on the right.

Are there active efforts already underway to explore those options of other MKs from other parties crossing lines?

Well, Likud is very clearly publicly saying that we would accept additional parties to join the right-wing government headed by Netanyahu. Unfortunately, you’ve heard Blue and White and others that they are so anti-Netanyahu that they said they will not join Netanyahu’s government. Hopefully, they will soften their public statements after the elections, and we will, too, if we could bridge some of the challenges and the bad blood right now. But for me, if you look at the interest of Israel, it would be to have a very strong right-wing government, and then as I said earlier, expand circles. We would welcome that.

Do you think it’s appropriate for the prime minister’s legal status and the possibility of providing him immunity from prosecution to be part of coalition deals and conditions on other parties to join the coalition?

I think that we must enable Prime Minister Netanyahu like we must enable everyone to prove their innocence and to remind everyone that he is innocent unless proven guilty. What you hear from the press and also Blue and White and the other left-wing parties is that they’ve already decided to indict.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is interviewed by Rina Mazliah on Channel 12, September 14, 2019. (Channel 12 screenshot)

They already found him guilty, and didn’t even give him a fair and honest chance to defend himself. There’s a very reasonable chance that Netanyahu will not be put to trial, and so our recommendation of Likud and our very clear statement is to separate between the legal process and what is the right thing to do for the future of the State of Israel for our children and our grandchildren.

So from my perspective, separate the two paths. Remind everyone that by law, Prime Minister Netanyahu can continue and serve as prime minister even if he’s put on trial, which he is not yet and hopefully will not be, and enable people to focus on how to create a coalition with no conditions at all, and just join us and help us manage the country.

Blue and White has effectively said that Likud will remain in government, whatever the results of the election, either as the party that forms the coalition or as a party that joins them in a national unity government. Would you personally sit as a minister in a national unity government headed by Blue and White?

I think that this is their wish list and their dream, but the numbers don’t match up. If you look at the opportunities for creating coalition, Netanyahu is by far the person that has the most successful and the highest chance to create and manage a new government, a new coalition. Blue and White has no opportunity to do that without Likud; they will not, cannot, manage the country if Likud does not join them.

So, I’m asking… would you sit in a government as a minister headed by Blue and White?

No. The answer is no. We will only sit in a government headed by Netanyahu and Likud. Period.

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