Facing dire polls and growing public anger and anxiety over a wave of attacks on multiple fronts, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced Monday the permanent reinstatement of Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, whom he fired two weeks ago for publicly calling to freeze his plans to overhaul the judicial system.
Netanyahu, in a speech to the nation, also blamed the opposition and the previous government for recent violence that has included rocket fire from Lebanon, Syria, and the Gaza Strip, and a series of deadly Palestinian terrorist attacks.
His predecessors Naftali Bennett and Yair Lapid denounced his claims, with Bennett calling his speech shameful and Lapid telling him to “take responsibility.”
In a primetime address and press conference, Netanyahu lashed out at opponents of the planned shakeup of the judiciary — which he paused following mass protests and a general strike in response to Gallant’s axing — while vowing that his right-religious coalition will restore security.
“Our country is under a terrorist assault,” he said. But it “did not start now. Under the previous government, the number of terror attacks doubled.”
Netanyahu claimed the previous government showed weakness, emboldening Israel’s enemies. He singled out for criticism a US-backed maritime border demarcation deal with Lebanon, which he falsely said was signed with the Lebanese terror group Hezbollah.
“The previous government handed over territory and gas deposits to the enemy without getting anything in return,” he charged.
The premier sought to link between the agreement inked last year and the surging attacks, before turning to the mass protests since the start of the year against his government’s plans to radically constrain the judiciary. He asserted that warnings by army reservists that they might refuse service if his government moves forward with the legislation package also projected weakness to Israel’s enemies.
“When you declare that the State of Israel is collapsing, how do you think our enemies interpret this?” Netanyahu said he asked opposition leader Yair Lapid, when the two met Sunday for a security briefing. “Our enemies see this, they hear this… They believe they can take us on, with combined terror from Lebanon, Syria, and Gaza.”
“But now it’s our watch, it’s our responsibility. It’s my responsibility,” he added.
“You know me. I don’t act rashly. I act resolutely and determinedly and above all I act responsibly,” said Netanyahu. “I tell you tonight, people of Israel, we will repel these threats and we will defeat our enemies. We’ve done so in the past and we’ll do so again.
“We’ll reestablish deterrence, we’ll fix the damages we inherited,” he said, adding that any enemies who see an opportunity to attack “are hugely mistaken.”
Netanyahu said he cannot give details on “everything we are doing” for Israel’s security “but we are doing a lot,” noting retaliatory strikes in Syria.
“The Assad regime knows that the price we exacted is only the beginning,” the prime minister warned.
Netanyahu then addressed the response to last week’s rocket barrage from Lebanon, the largest such attack since the 2006 war between Israel and Hezbollah. Israel later struck sites in Lebanon linked to the Gaza-ruling Hamas terror group, which was blamed for the rocket fire. Netanyahu incorrectly asserted that Hezbollah was also targeted.
While touting his government’s efforts to curb the attacks, Netanyahu acknowledged, “There are still many alerts. But I promise, we’ll get all the despicable terrorists who murdered our people, and we’ll settle the score.”
Netanyahu ended his prepared remarks by saying Defense Minister Gallant will remain in his post, following two weeks of uncertainty after the premier announced the minister’s dismissal.
“We had differences, even serious differences,” he said of Gallant. “But I have decided to put the arguments behind us.”
After the press conference, Gallant tweeted out a picture of him and Netanyahu with the caption, “Continuing together with full strength for Israel’s security.”
Castigations from Bennett, Lapid, Gantz
Netanyahu’s remarks were swiftly denounced by leaders of the previous government.
“Instead of holding a press conference and blaming others for the troubles caused by his extremist and failed government, the time has come for [Netanyahu] and his ministers to stop whining and finally take responsibility,” said opposition leader Lapid.
Former prime minister Naftali Bennett described Netanyahu’s speech as “unleaderlike and shameful,” and rejected his accusation that the agreement with Lebanon damaged Israel’s deterrence.
“The agreement was with Lebanon, not with Hezbollah, and what Hezbollah is doing now has no connection at all with that agreement,” Bennett said. “This is a time for leadership, not for blaming others.”
National Unity party head Benny Gantz, whose opposition party has recently seen surging support in opinion polls, tweeted: “You don’t build leadership by whining.”
Yisrael Beytenu leader Avigdor Liberman said Netanyahu’s speech “proves that the man is not fit for the job” and alleged that the prime minister’s son Yair is dictating policy.
“The only conclusion from all the trolling we saw and heard tonight is that, in the best case scenario, Benjamin Netanyahu has become the contractor of Yair Netanyahu,” Liberman claimed, in reference to reports of Yair’s increasing influence over the prime minister. He called on the Likud party to remove the prime minister from office.
Netanyahu during the press conference explicitly denied that his son influences policy, calling him “an independent person” with “zero influence.”
Fielding questions after his speech, Netanyahu denied that he is weakening Israel’s position on the international stage by pursuing a radical judicial overhaul. He predicted that he will soon get a White House visit, after US President Joe Biden ruled out such an invitation when urging him to abandon the legislation.
Asked about being “persona non grata” at the White House and elsewhere, Netanyahu invoked the National Security Council spokesman recently speaking about US-Israel ties being as strong as ever, and stressed his 40-year relationship with Biden.
“I assume you’ll have an agreement,” Netanyahu said, apparently referring to the compromise talks on the overhaul.
“And then what will you say? When there’s a visit, what will you say then? Don’t worry. There’ll be a visit,” he repeated.
“Ties with the US are very close,” he said. “Security and intelligence cooperation are taking place right now, and are stronger and closer than ever.”
Two weeks ago, Biden urged Netanyahu to “walk away” from the judicial overhaul package, saying he was “very concerned” about the health of Israel’s democracy, and warning that Israel “cannot continue down this road.”
Biden also gave an emphatic, “No,” when asked whether he would be inviting Netanyahu to the White House, adding: “Not in the near term.”
Netanyahu was also asked at the press conference about placards at right-wing rallies declaring, “Fuck Biden.”
“I definitely condemn curse words directed against Joe Biden,” he said. “We can disagree, [and] we have. And we sometimes do, but he’s a friend, and anyway, you don’t curse the American president, whoever he is. The US is our indispensable ally.
“That doesn’t mean that as a sovereign state, Israel, and the prime minister of Israel, can’t say a short word on occasion to the United States. It’s called ‘no.’ Sometimes there’s a three-letter word. It’s called ‘yes.’ But you have to have the freedom to say both, and I do. I retain that freedom because I think it’s important.”
Addressing reports of leaked US intel saying Israel could provide lethal weapons to Ukraine, Netanyahu said, “I don’t know what the basis of those reports is. We’ve decided to help them in humanitarian matters, civil defense, red alert [system] — things of that nature. [There has been] no decision about lethal weaponry… I’ll do what I can, if I can, to help resolve this conflict.”
Netanyahu also claimed that European leaders with whom he has recently met say positive things to him in private, but speak differently when the media is present.
“When I meet the leaders of Britain, France, Germany, and Italy — which I did lately — what they tell me behind closed doors, as opposed to meetings when other people are there, reflects a completely different interaction,” said the prime minister.
“Afterwards, you know, pro forma,” he said, those leaders have to stress their “I believe” in a “solution of two states for two peoples. Everyone has to say that, and to say something about the judicial reform.”
He also brushed off a television poll released Sunday that showed his parliamentary bloc falling to 46 seats out of the 120 in the Knesset in a potential election.
“I’m not moved by it. I’ve seen worse,” he said. “This government will serve for four years. The determining factor, in the end, will be the way we handle security, the economy, health, education, peace.”