PM criticized for snubbing Kiryat Shmona mayor during city tour, meeting Likud candidate

Mayor and Likud member Avichai Stern, who has been critical of PM’s wartime conduct, calls premier’s behavior ‘petty politics’

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with Kiryat Shmona mayoral candidate Eli Zafrani (center) on June 5, 2024 (Eli Zafrani's Facebook page)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with Kiryat Shmona mayoral candidate Eli Zafrani (center) on June 5, 2024 (Eli Zafrani's Facebook page)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu came under criticism on Wednesday for meeting Kiryat Shmona’s Likud mayoral candidate during a tour of the bombarded northern city while snubbing incumbent Mayor Avichai Stern, who has been critical of him.

Netanyahu visited the city after major fires broke out around the city and in other areas of the north Monday night as a result of Hezbollah rocket and drone attacks, leading critics to accuse the government of abandoning the north over eight months of conflict.

The Prime Minister’s Office initially claimed that Netanyahu did not meet with Stern as the visit was for a “military tour and a security situation assessment on the northern border” and that “civilian meetings were not arranged… including with the mayor of Kiryat Shmona. Civilian officials were not invited to the tour.”

The PMO, however, was forced to revise the statement after the Likud mayoral candidate, Eli Zafrani, shared images on Facebook of a briefing he attended with Netanyahu. The PMO asserted that Zafrani “came of his own accord and was not invited to the briefing.”

Zafrani wrote in his post that he’d briefed the premier on the situation in the city. “I made it clear to him that the patience of our dear residents has run out, and something must be done about the abnormal situation that we have found ourselves in,” he wrote.

The snubbing of Stern garnered criticism from within Netanyahu’s government. Interior Minister Moshe Arbel said the prime minister’s conduct “is an indication of poor judgement.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (second right) visits Kiryat Shmona on the border with Lebanon, June 5, 2024. (Amos Ben Gershom/GPO)

War cabinet minister Benny Gantz said, “Whoever carries responsibility must hear the truth. Leadership must not run away from reality, you cannot make political considerations during wartime.” Gantz also called on Netanyahu to apologize to Stern and set up a meeting with him.

After it was revealed that Netanyahu had met with Zafrani during the tour, Stern responded, saying: “The north is burning and the prime minister is playing petty politics. Everything is a show for this government. Kiryat Shmona’s residents do not have the time, patience or money for displays of cheap politics during wartime.”

“If the prime minister actually wanted to make a difference in Kiryat Shmona, he would have to have the mayor by his side, as well as [municipal officials]. He would have to meet with those who are running the city every day,” Stern said, adding that Netanyahu chose to “surround himself with actors to strengthen his standing in Likud.”

In an interview with Haaretz last month, Stern criticized the Netanyahu government’s conduct in ongoing hostilities with Hezbollah, which have internally displaced tens of thousands of Israelis, saying the premier should be replaced as soon as the war is over.

Kiryat Shmona did not hold local elections in February when most of the country did, because most of its residents have been evacuated due to ongoing attacks from the Lebanese terror group across the border.

During his visit, Netanyahu warned that Israel was prepared with an “extremely powerful” response to Hezbollah, adding that “anyone who thinks that they can harm us and we will sit on our hands is sorely mistaken.”

Netanyahu’s comments came after Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Herzi Halevi said on Tuesday that Israel was close to making a decision on how to address Hezbollah’s daily attacks, which the terror group says are to support Palestinians in Gaza amid Israel’s ongoing war against Hamas.

Kiryat Shmona Mayor Avichai Stern. (CC BY-SA Studio Golan, Wikipedia)

The prime minister visited the area hours after firefighters confirmed that they had gained control of a series of major blazes in northern Israel sparked by Hezbollah rocket and drone attacks, following some 48 hours of intense firefighting efforts.

“The ground burned yesterday and I am happy you put it out,” Netanyahu told firefighters, “but the ground also burned in Lebanon.”

During the visit, he also met with troops from the IDF’s 769th “Hiram” Regional Brigade to discuss operations against Hezbollah.

The large blazes prompted a spike in calls for military action by some northern residents and members of the coalition and increased concerns that Israel may soon find itself engaged in ground operations on two fronts.

Around 60,000 residents of towns and villages along Israel’s northern border have been displaced from their homes since October due to to the near-daily cross-border rocket and anti-tank missile attacks by Hezbollah and other terrorists in southern Lebanon.

Emanuel Fabian, Lazar Berman and Agencies contributed to this report.

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