With his Likud party trailing in the polls ahead of Tuesday’s elections, Benjamin Netanyahu acknowledged Thursday that “there’s a real danger” he would be ousted as prime minister.
If his Likud party “can’t close the gap in the polls in the next few days,” he told Channel 2 news, “there’s certainly a danger that Tzipi Livni and [Isaac] Herzog will be prime minister,” he added — referring to the two leaders of the merged Zionist Union opposition. Still, he said, he didn’t regret calling the elections, “because the [previous] government couldn’t function any more.”
Acknowledging that “I didn’t do enough” to bring down housing prices, a key election issue, Netanyahu said he was certain, however, that most of the “national camp” and “most of the public” want to keep him in office.
He urged those Israelis not to give their votes to other satellite parties. “If they want me as prime minister,” Netanyahu said, “the only certain way of ensuring this is to vote Likud.”
The interview came as Netanyahu launched a media blitz on Thursday, speaking to several Israeli outlets — though notably not Channel 10 — in a last ditch bid to bolster his party’s position after several polls showed Likud slumping behind the surging Zionist Union.
While recent polls have Herzog’s Zionist Union beating the ruling Likud party by three or four seats, analysts still say the party has a potentially harder task than Netanyahu of assembling a majority coalition.
Netanyahu protested to Channel 2 that tens of millions of dollars had been funneled from European states and from left-wingers overseas to prevent his re-election. “There are governments that want to bring down the right; they oppose me,” he said.
He also spoke of a major “coalition” of forces, including parts of the Israeli media, who were seeking to oust the Israeli right from power and install a government that would relinquish territory to the Palestinians. “Any land relinquished will be grabbed by Islamic extremists,” he warned.
He ruled out the notion of sharing the prime minister in a unity government with Zionist Union. “I won’t rotate the premiership,” Netanyahu vowed. “It must be prevented.”
Asked if he would quit politics if he loses on March 17, he said: “I’m not dealing with the question of quitting. I’m dealing with winning.”
Herzog, whose party is polling at 24-25 seats compared to 21 for Netanyahu’s Likud, said in an interview on the same news program that, “I don’t intend to rotate the prime ministership with Netanyahu; I intended to replace him… Netanyahu has acknowledged that he has failed.”
“I intend to win,” Herzog said, urging Israelis to “vote for the Zionist Camp… and enable me to build a strong coalition… If you want change, if you want hope, come with me.”
Asked whether he had the experience for the post, Herzog stressed that he had succeeded in five ministerial positions, and was “ready for the job… We’ve seen that a prime minister with experience has achieved almost nothing.”
Herzog said his promise to rotate the prime ministership with Livni after two years stood, and that their partnership had “engendered the political revolution that you see unfolding before your eyes now.”
Questioned over whether he would cede sovereignty to the Palestinians anywhere in Jerusalem, Herzog said Netanyahu had “weakened Jerusalem” while he stood for “a unified Jerusalem… My father was the first governor of Jerusalem in 1967. Netanyahu shouldn’t preach to me about Jerusalem… The man who placed the division of Jerusalem, heaven forbid, on the agenda was Netanyahu.”
He said he would seek to resume peace talks with the Palestinians, however, in the context of dealings with moderate Arab states.
Responding to Netanyahu’s complaints about foreign funding of efforts to oust him, Herzog noted that American billionaire Sheldon Adelson funds a free daily newspaper deeply supportive of the prime minister. He dismissed the claim of foreign governments seeking to oust the prime minister.
In a Channel 1 interview, Herzog said the Etzion Bloc of settlements was “as important” as Tel Aviv and that “all the settlement blocs will come under Israeli sovereignty in a permanent accord” with the Palestinians. Nonetheless, settlements outside the blocs would have to be evacuated, and there should not be further investment in them, Herzog said.
Earlier Thursday, Herzog hit the campaign trail in Tel Aviv’s Carmel Market, while other candidates stepped up their various battles to shore up support in the course of the day.
Orthodox-nationalist Jewish Home leader Naftali Bennett, for instance, castigated Moshe Kahlon of Kulanu for ostensibly shifting to the left: “To be social, you don’t have to be a leftist,” Bennett declared.
Kahlon, for his part, went to the southern town of Kiryat Gat, to expose what he said were false claims from centrist rival and former finance minister Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid about thousands of housing starts in the area.
He had the camera pan across open fields. Yesh Atid immediately released footage of trucks at work nearby in the early stages of construction.
At a campaign event attended by what Yesh Atid said were more than 2,000 people Thursday evening, Lapid said that next Tuesday “needs to be Netanyahu’s last day as prime minister of Israel. Not because he’s right wing, not because he’s from the Likud, but because he doesn’t care. Because he stopped caring about the citizens of Israel and all he cares about is his job, and his motorcade and to keep a bullet proof glass wall between him and the real problems of the people of Israel.”
Lapid said “the streets are burning” with support for Yesh Atid, and that it would fare better than the 12-14 seats polls are predicting. “It’s even stronger than last time. It happened under the radar again… We’ve all felt it over the past two weeks. The people who said, ‘I’ve come back to you,’ the people who say ‘I didn’t vote for you last time, but this time we’re with you,’ and the people who say ‘it’s time to change Israel.'”
Also Thursday, former president and prime minister Shimon Peres threw his support behind Herzog for prime minister. In a statement announcing his endorsement, Peres, who spent most of his political career in the Labor Party, hailed Herzog as a “levelheaded leader who is reliable, and full of responsibility and dedication to the Israeli public.”
In response, the Likud party said in a statement: “It’s obvious that Peres, an avowed leftist, supports [Herzog] and Tzipi. He is the architect of the Oslo Accords, an enthusiastic supporter of the disengagement, and a proponent of withdrawal from the West Bank.”