Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu apologized on Wednesday to a prominent religious-Zionist rabbi after the premier’s top political fixer was recorded mocking the religious figure and the Yamina party that views him as a religious leader.
Rabbi Chaim Druckman, an Israel Prize laureate and former lawmaker, is considered by many to be the top religious figure in the religious-Zionist community in Israel.
In the recording, Netanyahu’s senior political aide Natan Eshel appears to mock Druckman with the dismissive Yiddish prefix “sh,” calling him “Druckman and Shmuckman.”
Netanyahu’s call Wednesday was “warm and good,” according to Likud officials. The prime minister said disparaging comments by his aide Natan Eshel “did not reflect my views,” wished the rabbi good health, and said the best way to ensure a right-wing government after the March 2 election is to vote Likud, Likud said.
Druckman appeared unconvinced. He released a statement Wednesday night, after the call with Netanyahu, saying that he “calls [his followers] to vote for Yamina alone, whose ballot initials are tet-bet.”
He added: “The Yamina slate’s representatives can be trusted to fight with all their might for the Jewish identity of the State of Israel, and for keeping the land of Israel in the hands of people of Israel. A vote for the Yamina slate will ensure a right-wing government headed by Prime Minister Netanyahu.”
In the recordings published Tuesday by Channel 12, Eshel, who has led Netanyahu’s coalition negotiations, is heard trying to convince the head of the right-wing extremist Otzma Yehudit (Jewish Power) party, Itamar Ben Gvir, to bow out of the race.
Otzma Yehudit has repeatedly failed to make it into the Knesset, and was kept out of the Yamina alliance of right-wing parties when it was formed last month by Yamina’s leader Naftali Bennett. Bennett attributed it to the fact that Ben Gvir is a supporter of Baruch Goldstein, the mass-murderer who carried out the 1994 terror attack at the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron in which 29 Muslim worshipers were killed.
A picture of Goldstein hangs in Ben Gvir’s living room, Bennett noted, saying it was “obvious” that he could not be on a Knesset slate with such a candidate.
But Netanyahu has nevertheless worked hard to get Otzma Yehudit either into the Knesset or out of the race, as it has consistently drawn between 1.6 and 2.6 percent of the vote in polls — well under the 3.25% threshold for entering the Knesset, but enough to deny Netanyahu’s future right-wing coalition a crucial couple of Knesset seats.
In the recordings of recent phone calls between Eshel and Ben Gvir, Eshel is heard trying to convince Ben Gvir to drop out of the race.
“I have a question for you, my dear,” Eshel tells Ben Gvir. “If you knew with absolute certainty, absolute certainty, that you had no chance of passing [the threshold], wouldn’t you prefer a bird in the hand [to two in the bush]?”
Eshel was arguing it was better to drop out but help ensure a right-wing government than to stay in the race in the hopes of winning a presence in the Knesset but in the process hurting the right’s overall prospects.
“Natan, we’ve spoken about this countless times,” Ben Gvir is heard replying. “We both understand one thing: He [Netanyahu] doesn’t have 61 [Knesset seats] without me. He just doesn’t. If you tell me, ‘Itamar, look me in the eye, Likud is bringing 40 seats this time, and Yamina 10 seats,’ then fine.”
“I don’t believe in that,” Eshel replies, though it’s unclear if he’s saying he doesn’t expect such numbers at the ballot box or if he doesn’t believe in lying to Ben Gvir.
Ben Gvir goes on to insist Netanyahu’s support could put him over the top — and win Netanyahu the election at long last. “Bibi can put me [over the threshold]. If he wants, he can put me. As soon as he comes out and says, ‘I have internal polls that show that Itamar is rising,’ then we’re done, the game is over.”
He then vows to support Netanyahu’s bid for a new “French law” that would give him immunity from prosecution in his corruption cases, a promise Netanyahu has been unable to obtain from Yamina leader Naftali Bennett.
“He [Netanyahu] knows I’m more than him [Bennett] on everything: more [supportive of] immunity than him – I want a French law. He knows this.”
Eshel then says of his boss: “If he knew, or even felt or suspected, that you can pass [the threshold], he’d be delighted to have you and not Bennett.”
Ben Gvir pushes the point further: “Bennett, everyone believes, the entire street is talking about how he will go, on the day after the election, with [Blue and White leader Benny] Gantz.”
Eshel agrees, explaining Bennett’s refusal to run with Ben Gvir as a nod to Gantz, which is why Netanyahu’s efforts to pressure Rabbi Druckman to pressure Bennett had failed. In his explanation, Eshel seems to mocks the rabbi, calling him “Druckman and Shmuckman.”
“I also think that, I’m sure of it, Itamar,” Eshel tells Ben Gvir. “I’ve said it, too, I’ve explained that to Bibi, why there was no chance that Bennett would agree to go with you, because then he wouldn’t have the option of going with Gantz. I said that to Bibi too. It’s a waste of effort to go to Rabbi Druckman and Shmuckman and all the rest of it. It’s silly.”
Ben Gvir adds that if Gantz offers the heads of Yamina Bennett, Ayelet Shaked and Bezalel Smotrich the ministries of defense, justice and transportation respectively, “you can only dream of them not joining [Gantz]. They’ll join very happily.”
“Not only do I agree with you,” Eshel replies, “but Bibi also thinks as you do.”
After the recordings were aired Tuesday, Bennett called Druckman to support him.
Eshel later explained in a statement that he had spoken in “slang,” and meant nothing by the comment.
“It’s obvious that I am among the students and admirers of Rabbi Druckman. My intent was clear, that not he [Druckman] and not anyone else could change Ben Gvir’s mind. I spoke in slang, and, God forbid, meant nothing more than that.”