Fact check

Netanyahu’s launch speech rich in inaccuracies… and not just about Afghanistan

PM claims Benny Gantz mourned Hamas terrorists, cheered the Iran nuclear deal, won’t sit with Likud — all of which the Blue and White party leader denies

Raphael Ahren

Raphael Ahren is a former diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the launch of his Likud party's election campaign in Ramat Gan, March 4, 2019. (Aharon Krohn/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the launch of his Likud party's election campaign in Ramat Gan, March 4, 2019. (Aharon Krohn/Flash90)

At the official election campaign launch of his Likud party on Monday evening, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu listed Afghanistan as one of the countries he has visited.

Afghanistan has no diplomatic relations with Israel and is actually very hostile toward the Jewish state, so the prime minister’s talk of having visited raised eyebrows. Had Netanyahu casually revealed a sensation?

“I meant Azerbaijan,” Netanyahu clarified on Twitter a few minutes after he stepped down from the podium. “But who knows, maybe in my next term,” he added with a smiley.

But Netanyahu’s minor slip of the tongue was not the only inaccuracy in his nearly hour-long speech at the event at Kfar Maccabiah in Ramat Gan. Especially when attacking his political opponents, he made several other claims that were either half-true, grossly misleading or unproven.

Here’s a look at eight key assertions Netanyahu made in his speech:

1. Netanyahu claimed: Israel is ranked the 8th most powerful country in the world

That’s correct. Netanyahu was referring to US News & World Report’s 2019 Best Countries rankings, which was released earlier Monday. It was conducted by researchers from the University of Pennsylvania and based on a survey of over 20,000 people from across the globe.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the launch of his Likud party’s election campaign in Ramat Gan, March 4, 2019.(Aharon Krohn/Flash90)

Israel, as it did last year too, came in eighth in the “power” category, behind the US, Russia, China, Germany, the UK, France and Japan.

“For its relatively small size, the country has played a large role in global affairs,” the magazine stated. (Netanyahu chose not to say that, in the overall ranking of the world’s best countries, Israel came in 29th.)

2. Netanyahu claimed: Under his leadership, Israel is witnessing an unprecedented blossoming of diplomatic ties

It’s correct that the “diplomatic tsunami” that some on the left had predicted in the absence of progress in the peace process with the Palestinians has failed to materialize. It’s also true that Netanyahu has developed good personal relations with the leaders of major powers such as the US, Russia, India and Brazil, and that Jerusalem is making new friends in Muslim states across Africa and in the Arab world.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (left) with Sultan Qaboos bin Said in Oman on October 26, 2018 (Courtesy)

At the same time, it bears noting that Israeli foreign policy still has its fair share of challenges. The Foreign Ministry is deeply underfunded, Jerusalem’s relations with the European Union are at a historic low, Iran’s regional aggression shows no signs of abating, while the Israeli-Palestinian conflict remains the glass ceiling of full normalization with the Gulf states. Furthermore, Israel is losing support among progressive elements in the Democratic party in the US, while the global anti-Israel boycott movement continues to gain steam.

3. Netanyahu claimed: The media and the left are united in an illicit effort to bring down my government

Knowing that he cannot be beaten at the ballot box, journalists and left-wing politicians are resorting to an “unfair” campaign unprecedented in scope to oust him and the right-wing government, Netanyahu said. This is a pernicious but unfounded assertion that the prime minister has repeated as the corruption investigations against him have gathered pace.

Then-Police commissioner Roni Alsheikh with Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit, November 29, 2018. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

As dismayed as Netanyahu may be about his legal woes — especially after Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit on Thursday announced his intention to indict the prime minister in three corruption cases, pending a hearing — the processes that led to them were entirely legal and legitimate.

His relentless attacks on the media appear to be aimed at subverting a crucial element of a healthy democracy. Israel has a free and vibrant press. It’s true that Netanyahu is at the receiving end of much criticism by some of Israel’s leading journalists. At the same time, the country’s most widely circulated daily newspaper, Israel Hayom, is consistently complimentary of the prime minister, as are leading columnists at other important outlets.

4. Netanyahu claimed: His rivals seek to establish a government with the Arab parties, won’t sit with Likud

Blue and White party leaders Benny Gantz and Yair Lapid are closet leftists who hide their true positions because they know the public is right-wing, Netanyahu said. The rival party plans to rely on an electoral bloc with the Arab parties, he asserted, because without the Arab MKs it would be mathematically impossible for Gantz to build a governing coalition. “It’s Bibi or Tibi,” the prime minister said, in reference to veteran Arab MK Ahmad Tibi.

In fact, Blue and White denies plans to cooperate with Arab parties in the future coalition-building process, pledging to only align itself with Zionist parties, which would exclude the Arab lists.

Netanyahu also claimed Blue and White is not prepared to partner in government with Likud. “Gantz said he won’t sit with us in government,” Netanyahu said. In fact, Blue and White leaders have said they will reach out to Likud as coalition partners, but only if Netanyahu is no longer leading the party. “We won’t form a government with the Arab parties, we will contact Likud — the post-Netanyahu Likud, that is — to form a national unity government at this time of division and rifts,” Lapid said last week, while also claiming that “Netanyahu won’t stay if he loses.”

“We will call for a unity government with all parties, including with Likud, which will join us, and anyone else who is Zionist and sane,” Gantz had declared earlier on Monday. Last Thursday, after the attorney general made his indictment announcement, Gantz called on Netanyahu to resign and fight his legal battles as a private citizen. If he proved able to clear his name, Gantz said, Netanyahu could return to public life with head held high.

Blue and White party members (L-R) Gabi Ashkenazi, Yair Lapid, Benny Gantz and Moshe Ya’alon during a press conference in the Golan Heights on March 4, 2019. (Judah Ari Gross/Times of Israel)

5. Netanyahu claimed: Blue and White are in favor of uprooting settlements; he is opposed

Lapid has spoken of the need to evict tens of thousands of settlers, and Gantz called for another disengagement from Gaza, the prime minister said.

“More uprooting, another expulsion, another rift in the people, I won’t let that happen,” he vowed, adding that he had withstood incredible pressure in that regard from the Obama administration.

Lapid is in fact in favor of “separation” from the Palestinians and a two-state solution, which would leave the major settlement blocs within Israel. He is not known to have called for mass evictions of Israeli settlers.

Gantz in an interview last month did say that Israel needs to learn the lessons of the 2005 disengagement from Gaza and “implement them elsewhere.” But his party later said that he was talking about preventing “a divide between Israelis and maintaining non-negotiable security protections in any future initiative.”

Gantz will not unilaterally dismantle Israeli settlements, the party declared.

At the same time, it bears mentioning that it was the Likud that voted for and carried out the disengagement. Netanyahu himself in 2004-05 raised his hand three times in favor of the plan.

It is true that since becoming prime minister in 2009 Netanyahu has opposed removing settlers from their homes in any future peace deal. During the US administration’s 2014 peace push, Netanyahu reportedly demanded that West Bank settlers be allowed to stay in their homes even if their areas would fall under Palestinian sovereignty.

6. Netanyahu claimed: Lapid and Gantz supported the dangerous Iran nuclear deal; he fought and helped cancel it

The first assertion misrepresents the facts. Lapid opposed the 2015 accord, but after it was signed argued that it was unwise to antagonize the US administration, which had championed the deal.

Similarly, Gantz was not enthusiastic about the agreement, but after it became a fait accompli refused to get “hysterical” about it.

Former IDF chief of staff Benny Gantz speaks at the Washington Institute, September 25, 2015 (Washington Institute screenshot)

“I do agree that a better deal could have been reached,” he said in 2015, shortly after leaving his post as IDF chief of staff. “But I also see the half-full part of the glass here,” he added, noting that the deal keeps Iran away from a nuclear weapons capability “for ten, fifteen years into the future.”

It is true that Netanyahu avidly fought the deal, risking Israeli ties with the Obama administration, and working successfully toward persuading US President Donald Trump to withdraw from the deal last year.

7. Netanyahu claimed: Gantz, as deputy chief of staff, opposed the building of the border fence with Egypt

Blue and White flatly denies this accusation. Asked what Gantz’s position was on the matter, a party spokesperson said that he participated in countless deliberations about defense matters but does not want to discuss in the media the content of classified discussions.

Avner Itai conducts Mozart’s Requiem on the Gaza Border, June 4, 2015 (courtesy/Noam Ekhaus)

8. Netanyahu claimed: Gantz attended a ceremony honoring 1,000 Hamas terrorists killed in Gaza

“I wouldn’t have dreamed about going to such an event. But Benny Gantz went there. That says a lot about his judgement,” the prime minister said. He was referring a June 2015 concert entitled “From Mourning to Hope,” dedicated to the memory of Palestinian and Israeli victims of Operation Protective Edge, which Gantz had overseen as IDF chief of staff the year before.

It is true that Gantz sat in the first row, but it is disingenuous to characterize the event as a memorial for terrorists. Rather, it was organized as an effort mourn the war’s innocent victims in the hope of bringing Israelis and Gazans closer to peaceful coexistence.

“This event had no connection to Hamas whatsoever; it was about sending a message of hope and peace,” a Blue and White spokesperson said Monday evening.

Israel acknowledges that more than 2,000 Palestinians were killed during the conflict, including at least 936 “militants” and 761 civilians.

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