Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Thursday said Israel would likely be forced to go to war in Gaza in the near future following spiraling tensions on the southern front in recent weeks.
“There probably won’t be a choice but to launch an operation, a war with the terror forces in Gaza,” the prime minister said in a radio interview with the Kan public broadcaster, kicking off a media blitz five days before the national elections. “There probably won’t be a choice but to topple the Hamas regime. Hamas doesn’t exert its sovereignty in the Strip and doesn’t prevent attacks.”
“We have a situation in which a terror group that launches rockets has taken over, and doesn’t rein in rogue factions even when it wants to,” Netanyahu said of the Hamas terror group, which has ruled the Strip since it took over in a bloody coup in 2007, and which openly seeks Israel’s destruction. It has fought three wars with Israel since 2008.
Rockets have been fired at Israeli cities and communities multiple times over the past week — with most intercepted by the Iron Dome defense system or landing in open areas — drawing retaliatory Israeli airstrikes. On Tuesday night, two rockets were launched at Ashdod during a campaign rally in the city by Netanyahu, forcing the premier to be briefly shepherded off the stage by bodyguards to take shelter.
“Israel’s citizens know very well that I act responsibly and reasonably, and we will start an operation at the right time, which I will determine,” said Netanyahu, who is also defense minister.
Hinting that more “complex” military moves would possibly precede such a war, Netanyahu said a military confrontation was “a last resort. I don’t endanger our soldiers and civilians to get applause.”
In the interview, Netanyahu also addressed the possibility of an imminent meeting between US President Donald Trump and his Iranian counterpart Hassan Rouhani,
“I have influence over Trump. You can’t dictate to the president of the United States who to meet. There is nobody who has influenced or is influencing the offensive strategy on Iran more than yours truly.”
Trump has increasingly signaled openness to such a meeting with the Iranian president. Rouhani, meanwhile, has demanded US sanction relief as a precondition to talks with the White House.
The interview also centered on the upcoming election and increasingly strident rhetoric by Likud against Israel’s Arab minority and the media.
Netanyahu distanced himself from a campaign message on his Facebook chatbot that said “Arabs want to annihilate us all,” saying it was a mistake by a campaign employee and stressing: “I have friends in Arab countries and have respect for any person.”
That chatbot was suspended on Thursday for 24 hours after Facebook said it had “found a violation of our hate speech policy.”
He also said he had not been aware of and hadn’t approved a photo shared on his social media accounts that called journalist Guy Peleg “Dumbo,” mocking his appearance, as part of his aggressive anti-media campaign. Channel 12’s Peleg has published some of the most damning leaks from the three criminal investigations into Netanyahu.
“I’ll tell you a secret — not everything that appears on my page is vetted by me,” Netanyahu said. “You think I know what’s on there right now? If there’s a need, I correct it.”
Following his campaign pledge Tuesday to annex the Jordan Valley and other parts of the West Bank if elected, Netanyahu confirmed that he had wanted to extend Israeli sovereignty to the area two weeks ago, but Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit told him a transitional government such as the one currently running the country could not legally take such a step.
Netanyahu also denied a charge by Ayelet Shaked and Naftali Bennett, leaders of the religious right-wing party Yamina, that he had only shifted away from supporting a two-state solution and pivoting toward annexation because of their pressure.
“Bennett and Shaked can tweet whatever they want. You need to prepare international public opinion. First I had to block the immense pressure from the previous [Obama] administration to return to the 1967 borders,” Netanyahu said. “Over the last three years I have been leading a historic shift. We are no longer talking about what we will give up, but about what we will take and where we apply sovereignty.”
Still, the premier said he plans to seek out Yamina first after the elections as he attempts to form a coalition, should he be tasked with assembling the next government.
But he called on voters to vote for Likud rather than Yamina because it “doesn’t matter” whether Yamina’s No. 10 Orit Strock enters the Knesset — a comment likely to anger her supporters. Likud’s standing in comparison with centrist party Blue and White, he argued, would be central to the question of who gets the first shot at forming the next government.
Asked about the three corruption cases in which Mandelblit has announced charges against him, including for bribery in one, pending a hearing in three weeks’ time, Netanyahu repeated his claim that the cases were weak. The testimony against him was based on state witnesses who were “blackmailed, thrown into solitary confinement and had their hand twisted,” the prime minister claimed. Asked about a state witness’s testimony, he said the question was a “distraction” from the “right” questions: “Who will stand against against Iran and the Arab world.”
As part of his campaign, Netanyahu has been heavily focusing lately on alleged voter fraud, particularly in the Arab community, and tried unsuccessfully to pass a law to have voting stations filmed during Tuesday’s elections, sparking speculation that he would reject the election results if he loses.
Asked whether that was true, the premier said: “I simply don’t believe people think I will not accept the results. It’s right that there is a problem of voter fraud, but we operate according to the rules. The bottom line is, I will respect the election results.”