Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stepped up his attacks on his rival and likely successor Naftali Bennett on Sunday, calling the Yamina leader a serial liar and saying the potential incoming government was in league with the so-called “deep state.”
Netanyahu made the remarks to right-wing outlet Channel 20 as the so-called change bloc of parties pushed ahead with their effort to succeed the Netanyahu-led government while facing a tide of verbal attacks from the right, including the premier’s Likud, which is set to move to the opposition after 12 years in power.
Speaking to the station as Bennett held a press conference in which he urged the prime minister to “let go” and not leave “scorched earth” behind him, Netanyahu’s rhetoric appeared to inch closer to that of former US president Donald Trump, as he charged that the incoming government was dangerous and in league with the so-called “deep state.”
“The deep state is deep within this government,” Netanyahu said of the nascent coalition set to replace him, using a term for a supposed conspiracy of bureaucrats working against the elected leadership, popularized by Trump during his time in office.
Netanyahu repeatedly accused Bennett of lying to the public, calling him at one point a “habitual liar.” And he claimed that the incoming government was “more dangerous” than Israel’s pullout from Gaza, which he said resulted in Hamas rocket attacks, and the Oslo peace accords, which gave the Palestinians limited self-rule in the West Bank.
“Bennett is holding a fire sale on the country,” he charged, claiming that the coalition was coming together only because votes had been “stolen from right [and given] to the left.”
Bennett is set to become prime minister when a new government gets sworn in this month — on either June 9 or 14 — after he reached a coalition deal with opposition leader Yair Lapid of the Yesh Atid party and a wide array of parties aligned against Netanyahu, ranging from the ultra-dovish Meretz to the hard-right New Hope and the Arab party Ra’am. Under the agreement, Bennett will serve as prime minister for two years before handing the office to Lapid for the remainder of the term.
Netanyahu and his allies have continued to fight the 61-strong coalition by attempting to pressure Knesset members from the right to jump ship and torpedo the razor-thin majority, primarily by portraying the alliance as a left-wing government. Nir Orbach, the Yamina MK seen as most likely to get cold feet, has reportedly indicated in recent days that he will not deprive the new coalition of its majority.
Netanyahu, who had a famously close relationship with Trump, has alarmed some by appearing to adopt some of the language used by the former president when he refused to cede the US presidential election to Joe Biden — rhetoric that is seen as a direct cause of the deadly Capitol riot of January 6. Trump, too, claimed that the election had been “stolen” and repeatedly invoked “deep state” conspiracies.
Netanyahu has made previous allegations of a deep state, revolving around his criminal trial and what he claimed was a witch hunt by the judicial system, law enforcement community, media and others.
“We are witnesses to the greatest election fraud in the history of the country and in my opinion, the history of democracies,” Netanyahu said at the start of a Likud faction meeting Sunday.
The prime minister faced mostly friendly questioning from the anchors on Channel 20, which has been compared to Fox News or the One America News Network for its right-wing bent.
Netanyahu claimed that he appeared on Channel 20 because it was the only channel that would agree to hear him out, saying that the rest of the media was part of a “silencing campaign,” recruited to the cause of the emerging eight-party coalition.
He also repeated an accusation leveled earlier in the day at Facebook, which he said had only removed posts announcing a right-wing protest outside Orbach’s house and not those for a counter-rally at the same location. As proof he noted that Emi Palmor, the most senior Israeli on Facebook’s oversight board, had been director general of the Justice Ministry when it was run by Yamina’s Ayelet Shaked — despite the fact that Shaked had been minister under him.
“This is total fascism,” he said of the media in general, grinning widely.
Netanyahu’s opponents accuse him of promoting dangerous rhetoric and threats against members of the incoming government.
Shin Bet leader Nadav Argaman issued a rare public warning Saturday night that rising incitement could lead to political violence.
“This discourse may be interpreted among certain groups or individuals as one that allows violent and illegal activity and could even lead to harm to individuals,” Argaman said.
Some lawmakers, including at least four of the seven Yamina members of Knesset, have been given enhanced protection.
According to a Haaretz report Sunday, a week ago at a family event of Shas party chair Aryeh Deri, the prime minister noted that he had once been compared to the biblical Moses and asked: “And how did God take care of Moses’s opposition?”
Netanyahu then reportedly quoted from the Book of Numbers, chapter 16: “And the earth opened its mouth and swallowed them up, and their households.”
In a press conference as Netanyahu’s Channel 20 interview was being aired, Bennett appealed to the prime minister to “let go. Let the country move forward. People are allowed to vote for a government even if you do not lead it — a government that, by the way, is 10 degrees to the right of the current one.”
“Don’t leave scorched earth in your wake,” he urged.
The new government “is not a catastrophe, it’s not a disaster, [it’s] a change of government: a normal and obvious event in any democratic country,” Bennett said.
Asked to respond to the charge in real time, Netanyahu told Channel 20 that ousting him would be dangerous for the country because Bennett and others, he said, were unable to stand up to US pressure on peace efforts with the Palestinians or the Iran nuclear deal.
He also repeated his charge that a government that included Ra’am was an existential threat to the country, and said Bennett had given the Islamist party carte blanche to “create Palestinian Bedouin autonomy in the Negev and a new fulfillment of the [1947 UN] partition plan.”
Netanyahu himself had negotiated with Ra’am after the March election when he was attempting to cobble together his own government, but claimed that he would never have allowed the Islamist party into the government and only had sought its support from outside.
“We didn’t want Ra’am with us at any stage,” he said, calling the Arab party “terror supporters.” And he once again claimed Bennett had given Ra’am chief Mansour Abbas concessions “we would never have given.”
Bennett during his press conference asserted that since he had been involved in Likud’s efforts to form a government, he knew that Netanyahu had indeed sought to rely on the Ra’am party. In the Negev, he said, it was Netanyahu who had let armed Bedouin gangs run rampant over the past decade. Meanwhile, he stressed, his coalition was more center-right than left.
The Knesset is set to meet Monday for its first regular session since the coalition came together, and Speaker Yariv Levin will set a date for the new coalition to seek approval and be sworn in.
Bennett urged Levin not to delay the vote on the new government until next week, but rather to schedule it for Wednesday.
“That’s what’s appropriate,” Bennett said. “I know Netanyahu is pressing you… to allow more days to search for defectors… It might be in Netanyahu’s interest… [but] it’s not in the interest of the state.”