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Netanyahu, Bennett trade fire in battle for right-wing voters

Premier accuses Yamina of siding with Lapid and left-wing parties; Bennett slam’s PM’s handling of pandemic and challenges him to a debate

Luke Tress is a video journalist and tech reporter for the Times of Israel

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, speaks with then Education Minister Naftali Bennett during a plenum session in the Knesset, on December 5, 2016. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, speaks with then Education Minister Naftali Bennett during a plenum session in the Knesset, on December 5, 2016. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and rival Naftali Bennett, who heads the Yamina party, traded barbs on Thursday as they campaigned for votes on the right ahead of elections next month.

Netanyahu released a campaign video accusing Bennett of siding with the left, and Bennett responded by blasting Netanyahu’s handling of the pandemic and challenging him to a debate.

The premier posted a video on social media saying Bennett, whose party name means “rightward” and is to the right of Netanyahu’s Likud faction, was siding with the left and opposition leader Yair Lapid of the Yesh Atid party.

The ad also attacked Gideon Sa’ar of the right-wing New Hope party, Netanyahu’s leading challenger on the right according to recent polls.

“Bennett tied his fate to Lapid and pledged to not recommend Netanyahu” to head a governing coalition, the ad said, with footage of Bennett from previous campaigns saying he would not do so.

“A vote for one of the Bennett-Gideon [Sa’ar] pair is a vote for a left-wing government led by Lapid. Only Likud can unite the right and prevent a dysfunctional left-wing government. Only Likud will establish a full right-wing government,” the ad said.

“Do not divide the right and vote for other parties. We have a historic opportunity to unite the right,” the post said.

אסור לחלק את הימין ולהצביע למפלגות אחרות. יש לנו הזדמנות היסטורית לאחד את הימין, להצביע לליכוד ולהקים ממשלת ימין על-מלא!

Posted by ‎Benjamin Netanyahu – בנימין נתניהו‎ on Thursday, February 11, 2021

Hours later, Bennett posted a video of himself making a statement in response. He homed in on Netanyahu’s handling of the pandemic, without mentioning Israel’s successful vaccination campaign.

Bennett said the attack ad was like others “before every election.”

“This time the public won’t buy it and is not interested. Understand this, Mr. Prime Minister: Millions of children are staring at screens and fading since the beginning of the year since they haven’t left their house. There are over 5,000 Israelis who died from the coronavirus, a million Israelis with nowhere to work, so this time what the public wants to know, is who is the leader who is capable of saving Israel from this terrible chaos,” Bennett said.

“So I propose to you this — leave the video clips, and let’s have an open debate for the public, where you present your plan for the workforce, how you intend to unite the people, defeat the coronavirus, create 400,000 jobs, and I’ll do it too, and the public will decide.”

מר נתניהו, עזוב סרטונים. מזמין אותך לדיבייט על מהות.

Posted by ‎נפתלי בנט – Naftali Bennett‎ on Thursday, February 11, 2021

Netanyahu quickly dismissed the offer, mocking Bennett for only polling around 10 Knesset seats in surveys and saying: “He should debate Gideon.”

The March 23 elections will be Israel’s fourth in under two years. In the previous three votes, Netanyahu’s main challenger was Benny Gantz and his centrist-left-wing Blue and White coalition.

Netanyahu was able to direct his fire leftward during the campaigns and position himself as the leader of the right, but Blue and White has since collapsed and the long-serving premier is now contending with challenges from both sides.

The election, like the previous three votes, is largely seen as a referendum on Netanyahu’s rule amid his ongoing trial on corruption charges, as well as his government’s varied success battling the pandemic. Bennett and Sa’ar are battling for the support of anti-Netanyahu voters on the right of the spectrum.

Netanyahu’s attack on Bennett came even as polls have predicted he cannot win a majority in the Knesset without Bennett’s support. Polls predict Likud will be the largest party, but have not shown a clear path to a majority coalition for any faction.

Bennett has said he is seeking the prime ministership himself, but has not ruled out sitting with Netanyahu in this election cycle.

Further complicating a potential right-wing coalition, Netanyahu pushed for Bezalel Smotrich’s Religious Zionism alliance to merge with two far-right extremist parties — the Kahanist Otzma Yehudit and homophobic Noam factions — which will likely push those parties above the electoral threshold.

A senior Likud minister ruled out sitting in a coalition with Itamar Ben Gvir of Otzma Yehudit, who is in the third slot on the merged slate. Ahead of the March 2020 election, Bennett vetoed Ben Gvir’s inclusion in his right-wing slate.

Sa’ar also ruled out sitting with Ben Gvir in a coalition.

Netanyahu said Wednesday that Ben Gvir will not be a part of the next cabinet, but will be a member of his governing coalition.

Bennett, Sa’ar, and head of the right-wing Yisrael Beytenu party Avigdor Liberman were all former allies of Netanyahu who have become his bitter enemies.

MK Avigdor Liberman meets with settler leadership in the West Bank, September 6, 2020. (Sraya Diamant/Flash90)

On the other side of the spectrum, a candidate on the Labor party’s electoral list ruffled feathers with New Hope and Yisrael Beytenu on Thursday.

Liberman said in an interview with Channel 13, which will be broadcast in full on Friday, that he will not sit in a coalition with Ibtisan Mara’ana, an Arab-Israeli filmmaker who is No. 7 on the Labor party’s electoral slate.

Mara’ana’s candidacy caused a stir earlier Thursday when Dani Dayan, running in Sa’ar’s New Hope party, said the party would not serve with Labor in a future coalition because Mara’ana said in a 2012 social media post that she had ignored an annual Holocaust Remembrance Day siren. Dayan quickly walked back the statement, however.

Mara’ana wrote in the post that she had continued to drive as the annual memorial siren for the victims of the Holocaust sounded. The majority of drivers in Israel stop during the siren and stand by their vehicle.

Liberman said Mara’ana’s politics were better suited to the Arab-majority Joint List faction.

Director Ibtisam Mara’ana-Menuhin at a screening of a 2017 documentary film which she produced (courtesy)

“I don’t know what she’s doing in the Labor party because it’s really more appropriate for her to be in Balad, or the Islamic Movement. Definitely not in the Labor party,” he said. “I don’t see any Zionist party that will agree to sit with her” in a coalition.

He also said he doesn’t expect Labor to win more than five or six seats

Labor has seen a jump in support since its Merav Michaeli won its leadership primary and at least one recent poll predicted it would win seven seats.

Michaeli said on Thursday that although Mara’ana’s words were hurtful to many, the trauma of survivors was worthy of research.

“True, the headline that came from the words of Ibtisam Mara’ana sounds bad. It hurt me to read these things, but the question of the impact of the Holocaust and the trauma of the survivors is worthy of debate and is being researched in many places. Mara’ana will soon clarify the statement,” Michaeli told Army Radio.

Related: On bold TV show, Palestinian-Israeli director takes apart her society’s taboos

New elections, the fourth since April 2019, were called in December after the power-sharing government of Likud and Blue and White failed to agree on a budget by a December 23 deadline.

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