Newly sacked finance minister Yair Lapid launched a scathing attack on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu Wednesday night, asserting that the “disconnected” prime minister put his own interests above those of the Israeli public and promising that his Yesh Atid party would carry the new elections scheduled for March 17.
Speaking in Tel Aviv, Lapid also denied the prime minister’s accusation that he had been involved in an attempted “putsch” to bring down Netanyahu’s government from within, and alleged that Netanyahu had cut a deal with the ultra-Orthodox on a future coalition partnership. But but he devoted most of his speech to repeating his mantra that the prime minister was cut off from reality.
“You have no idea what [a new round of elections] does to the citizens of Israel because you live in your aquarium. And for a long time you haven’t known who the people are and what really troubles them,” Lapid said.
By calling elections after just two years, Lapid said of Netanyahu, “you announced to the Israeli public that you prefer to paralyze the Israeli economy. To burden the economy with billions in expenses. That you are withholding the most socially aware budget in years, a budget you voted for. That you are taking away the only opportunity thousands of young couples have ever had to own an apartment.”
The attack came as Israeli politicians began to prepare for a new round of elections, after Netanyahu’s government collapsed 20 months after being inaugurated.
Earlier in the day, in a preliminary vote, Knesset members voted overwhelmingly in favor of dissolving the current Knesset. A first reading of the bill later Wednesday was also approved, with all 22 Knesset members present voting in favor. Election day was set for March 17, 2015.
On Tuesday, Netanyahu had gone on the offensive himself, alleging that he was forced to end the coalition because Lapid and also-fired justice minister Tzipi Livni had attempted a “putsch.”
Lapid responded Wednesday, saying Netanyahu had “whined” to the Israeli public “that people tried to organize a ‘putsch’ against you, something which never happened… That’s not even disconnected, that’s to live in a fantasy world. I tried to overthrow you? Do you hear yourself? Who sold you that absurdity? And what caused you listen to it?”
Rather than he and Livni trying to build an alternative coalition with the ultra-Orthodox parties, it was Netanyahu, Lapid said, who had “cut a deal with the ultra-Orthodox: You promised to cancel the equality of national burden, increase the budget for yeshivot (religious study centers), to cancel the study of core subjects in their schools.”
Lapid went on to accuse Netanyahu of refusing to raise the minimum wage, to increase the education budget, and to allocate more money for public health, instead choosing to protect the interests of the Likud Central Committee members and supporters.
The Yesh Atid chief said Netanyahu had mishandled relations with the United States to the point that he often had to run interference with lawmakers in Washington.
“You caused ongoing, serious harm to the strategic relations between Israel and the United States,” Lapid continued. “You critically damaged relations with the White House. Senators call me and ask about the meaning of your patronizing and insulting behavior towards our greatest friend in the world… You believe the US is still living in the 80s. You used to understand America, but America changed and you’re disconnected.”
Lapid charged that Netanyahu had similarly botched the summer’s military campaign in Gaza.
“You went through a campaign in Gaza when even your own cabinet lost faith in your ability to manage it. And then you got scared by the polls, you ran away from a diplomatic initiative, and missed the chance to demilitarize Gaza and bring quiet to southern Israel.”
Answering questions after the speech, Lapid promised that “Benjamin Netanyahu will not be the prime minister after these elections.”
“I am competing to be the prime minister,” he said, “and Yesh Atid will win these elections.”
The former finance minister, who swept into the Knesset in 2013 with a party of political freshmen, professed himself unfazed by Yesh Atid’s current poll ratings — some of which predict a fall from its current 19 seats to about 10.
“Nobody correctly predicted how well we would fare last time,” he said. “And [out of nowhere] we became the biggest party in Israel. This time, we’re starting from a much better position.”
He lamented that his former ally Naftali Bennett’s Jewish Home party “became more Orthodox and more right-wing and that destroyed our alliance.”
He did not rule out sitting in a future coalition with the ultra-Orthodox, provided they “equally share the burden” of responsibilities in Israel.
Earlier on Wednesday, Tzipi Livni, who was fired from her position as justice minister on Tuesday night, sharply criticized the prime minister for his “hysterical” speech and what she characterized as political cowardice in what is emerging as a major talking point of both her Hatnua party and the similarly ousted Yesh Atid.
“The truth behind the hysterical talk yesterday is that we have a prime minister who is afraid,” she told the Hatnua Knesset faction. “A prime minister who is afraid of his ministers is even more afraid of the outside world, and his way of dealing with his fears is through his speeches. The problem is that in facing the real threats against Israel, the regional threats, speeches don’t help.
“The even bleaker truth is that the prime minister is afraid, politically, of everyone, but is even more fearful of the radical group in the Likud and in the coalition,” continued Livni.
Livni accused the prime minister of “not speaking the truth,” of ethical violations, and of eroding the legitimate and historical right of Jews to a Jewish state through his actions — a jab at the prime minister’s controversial “Jewish state” bill.
Members of the Yesh Atid party tendered their resignations from the cabinet shortly after Lapid and Livni were fired by Netanyahu.
In a press conference Tuesday night, Netanyahu had said that the situation in the cabinet was such that it was “impossible” for him to lead the country.
“I wanted the broadest possible government,” he said of the aftermath of the 2013 elections, asserting that his previous coalition was “one of the best and most stable” in the history of the country. But because his Likud party won relatively few seats, he said, he found himself saddled with an “adversarial” cabinet that was unworkable from the start and was plagued by “incessant attacks from within the government.
“It’s impossible to do all the things that are important for the security and welfare of the citizens of Israel” with the current government, Netanyahu added.
He then accused both Livni and Lapid of playing “old politics” and claimed that they had conspired against him. He listed several instances in which Lapid and Livni defied him and “undermined” his rule — on policies relating to Iran, the Palestinians, and building in East Jerusalem.
Snap polls by the two major television stations indicated that if elections were to be held today, Netanyahu’s Likud party would make gains at the expense of Lapid’s and Livni’s parties. According to a Channel 10 poll, Likud would win 22 seats, Jewish Home 17, Labor 13, Yisrael Beytenu 12, former Likud minister Moshe Kahlon’s as-yet-unnamed party 12, Yesh Atid nine, the ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism eight, Shas seven, Meretz seven, Hatnua four and the Arab parties nine.
A similar survey by Channel 2 showed Likud with 22, Jewish Home 17, Labor 13, Kahlon and Yisrael Beytenu with 10 apiece, Yesh Atid with nine, Shas with nine, United Torah Judaism with eight, Meretz with seven, Hatnua with four, and the Arab parties with 11.
Both polls would have made pleasant reading for Netanyahu, showing a strengthening of the right and numerous potential coalition options for him.
Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.