After allies call foul, PM doubles down on warning Likud could lose power

After allies call foul, PM doubles down on warning Likud could lose power

Netanyahu defends strategy to encourage right-wing voters to back him despite risk to his political partners, says it’s not clear he will lead the next government

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during press conference at his office in Jerusalem on April 3, 2019. (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during press conference at his office in Jerusalem on April 3, 2019. (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu pushed back Saturday on accusations by fellow right-wing leaders that he is seeking to grow support for his Likud party at their expense heading into elections on April 9.

With three days remaining before Israelis go to the polls, Netanyahu has issued appeals for support from right-wing voters, saying that they are in danger of losing their hold on power if political rival Benny Gantz’s Blue and White party emerges from the elections with a lead of four-five seats over Likud.

These warnings have come despite polls forecasting right-wing and religious parties winning a majority of seats, suggesting Netanyahu will have a straightforward path to forming a ruling coalition. A number of Netanyahu’s political allies dismissed his assertions earlier Saturday, saying it was clear he would head the next government and that he was merely trying to strengthen Likud at their expense.

“The exact opposite unfortunately,” Netanyahu told Channel 12 news in an interview.

Despite the expected majority for right-wing factions in the 120-seat Knesset, Netanyahu pointed to recent comments by President Reuven Rivlin pondering how to choose who should get the first shot at cobbling together a government, saying the president would choose whichever party is the biggest if no prime ministerial candidate has a sufficient number of recommendations from other party leaders to assemble a coalition.

“We don’t have 61 recommendations because a few right-wing parties refuse to say clearly that they’ll recommend me. In a situation like that [you] look to the largest party,” he said.

President Reuven Rivlin (right) and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a memorial service marking 23 years since the assassination of prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, at Mount Herzl cemetery in Jerusalem, on October 21, 2018. (Marc Israel Sellem/Pool)

The prime minister did not say which other right-wing party has not thrown its support behind him, but appeared to be referring to former Likud lawmaker Moshe Feiglin’s Zehut, which has refrained from explicitly backing Netanyahu or Gantz.

Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon has said he would prefer his Kulanu party again sit in a government led by Likud, but has not ruled out teaming up with Blue and White.

Netanyahu noted a series of polls published Thursday and Friday that gave Blue and White a four to five seat advantage over Likud, which he said showed his party’s supporters were “complacent.”

“Yair Lapid himself says something true: If there is a gap of four mandates between Likud and their party and they are leading, there is no force in the world that can stop them from forming a government,” he said, referring to remarks the Blue and White No. 2 made Thursday in an interview with The Times of Israel.

“The only way to guarantee right-wing rule is to vote Likud,” the prime minister said.

Benny Gantz during a Blue and White party event in Ashdod on March 30, 2019. (Flash90)

Netanyahu claimed his strategy would not harm other right-wing parties but rather “the opposite.”

“I will take all these right-wing parties and bring them into the coalition,” he said, whereas as Gantz “would take one or two maximum as a fig-leaf.”

Netanyahu also said his previous last-minute get out the vote efforts for Likud had proven themselves.

“In 2015 they heard me and that is why we won. Whoever doesn’t hear me now, we’ll lose,” he said, appearing to refer to a controversial video he put out last election day claiming Arab voters were heading to the polls “in droves.”

In an interview earlier with Channel 12, New Right party leader Naftali Bennett accused Netanyahu of trying to “take down” small right-wing factions in order to shore up support for Likud.

Bennett, who is education minister, claimed Netanyahu’s strategy was geared toward forming a so-called unity government between Likud and Blue and White ahead of the expected release of US President Donald Trump’s plan for Israeli-Palestinian peace.

“Netanyahu is right about one thing — there is a danger,” Bennett continued. “There is a danger we’ll get Bogie as defense minister,” he said, referring to Blue and White member and former Likud minister Moshe Ya’alon.

Bennett also ruled out joining a Gantz-led coalition, saying “I will not crown a left-wing government.”

New Right is currently polling around six seats, two more than the minimum needed to enter the Knesset.

Then Jewish Home party leader Naftali Bennett (left) and Yisrael Beytenu chairman Avigdor Liberman at the Knesset on July 22, 2015. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

In a separate interview with the network, Yisrael Beytenu party leader Avigdor Liberman dismissed Netanyahu’s warning the Israeli right “is in danger” of losing its hold on power after elections, noting the advantage right-wing parties have in the polls.

“This prime minister claims he’s being robbed while he’s the one doing the robbing,” Liberman said.

“Once, it’s the Arabs are flocking to the polls and another time, right-wing rule is in danger. There is no danger,” he added.

“This is a return to the same trick.”

Liberman said he intended to recommend Netanyahu be tasked with forming a government, but said “there is a long road” until he agrees to join a coalition.

A number of surveys have put Yisrael Beytenu below the 3.25 percent of the total vote needed to enter Knesset, but Liberman said the party would get “at least” seven to eight seats.

Kahlon, whose center-right Kulanu party is polling at four to five seats, has accused Netanyahu of “spin” and said he would form the next government.

Netanyahu’s strategy of appealing to right-wing voters to support Likud is seen as a risky one, as increased backing for his party at the expense of political allies could leave one or more of them below the electoral threshold and thus deprive him of a majority.

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