PM says Gantz 'incompetent'; hails his own business acumen

Pressed on graft, fake news, bots, Netanyahu says rivals, not him, guilty of all

In rare radio interview, PM says he wanted to occupy Gaza, hand it off to Arab country, but ‘no one volunteered to take it’; denies political timing to recovery of Baumel remains

Raoul Wootliff is the Times of Israel's former political correspondent and producer of the Daily Briefing podcast.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu delivers a statement to the media in the Prime Minister's Residence in Jerusalem on April 1, 2019. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu delivers a statement to the media in the Prime Minister's Residence in Jerusalem on April 1, 2019. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Launching a media blitz with just five days remaining until the national elections, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Thursday morning fended off multiple accusations of both poor leadership and criminality, pointing the finger instead at his political rivals, who he said were the incompetent and guilty ones, not him.

Speaking to the Kan public broadcaster in his first radio interview since the week before the 2015 elections, Netanyahu accused the Blue and White party leadership of a “campaign of lies” and a “blood libel” against him. Rejecting all criticism of his and his government’s record — from Gaza policy to national infrastructure — the prime minister said he had brought “unprecedented prosperity” to Israel that would be threatened by allowing an “incompetent” Benny Gantz to take his job.

As Egypt and UN envoy Nikolay Mladenov currently work to broker a truce between Israel and Hamas after a flareup in violence last week, Netanyahu dismissed the charge that he has abandoned residents of the south, claiming to have improved the situation and to have been seeking a way to seize the Gaza Strip from its terrorist Hamas rulers and put it in the hands of a regional Arab power.

“We did a lot in Gaza; we did not conquer it because then we would have had to take about two million Palestinians. I discussed the issue with many Arab leaders and no one volunteered to take it and deal with it,” Netanyahu said, claiming that the option of a large-scale military operation to destroy Hamas was still possible. He also, however, admitted that a long-term solution remains elusive.

This picture taken on March 30, 2019 from the southern Israeli kibbutz of Nahal Oz across the border from the Gaza Strip, shows Israeli military vehicles keeping position at the border fence, as Palestinians, waving national flags, demonstrate to mark the first anniversary of the “March of Return” protests. (Jack Guez/AFP)

“All options, including entry and occupation, are still on the table,” he said. “I do not know whether there will be long-term calm but I do not embark on unnecessary wars. I want every mother and father to know that I am not sending their children to war for nothing. We may have to embark on a large-scale military operation in the Gaza Strip. But this is the last resort.”

On the other hand, Blue and White party leader Gantz has no answer to the ongoing rocket fire from the coastal enclave “other than blaming me,” Netanyahu charged.

According to the prime minister, the public knows that Gantz “has neither the experience nor the ability to run the country,” and the former IDF chief is therefore resorting to “a campaign of lies against me made up of the most ridiculous claims.”

Specifically, Netanyahu denied any wrongdoing in a corruption case involving submarine purchases that has snagged several of his close associates, and attempted to cast the claims that he made millions of shekels off the deal as ostensible proof of his business acumen.

The claims relate to the revelation that Netanyahu once held shares in Texas-based Seadrift Coke, a company later acquired by a supplier of Thyssenkrupp, the German shipbuilder at the center of the corruption probe.

A general view of the headquarters of German heavy industry giant ThyssenKrupp AG in Essen, Germany, on December 11, 2012 . (AFP/ Patrik Stollarz/File)

Reports have suggested Netanyahu made a return of over 700 percent on the stocks in Seadrift, which he bought for $400,000 and then sold in 2010 to his cousin, US businessman Nathan Milikowsky, for $4.3 million. That dramatic profit has led to speculation of possible impropriety in Netanyahu’s financial dealings.

The premier on Thursday, however, turned the allegations on their head, claiming that instead of suggesting criminality, they are an example of his business prowess and even a reason that the public should vote for him.

“I am proud of the fact that I understand the economy, that I understand business and am able to see investment opportunities,” he said. “This is something that [Yair] Lapid and Gantz don’t understand anything about. My knowledge and ability in economics not only served me, but the entire country when I took office. I brought billions to the Israeli economy; this is the best decade for the country.”

Netanyahu also repeated his charge that Blue and White had spread a “blood libel” against him for questioning his decision to grant his approval for the same German shipbuilder to provide advanced submarines to Egypt, reducing Israel’s qualitative military edge. “They accuse me of treason! These allegations are completely made up,” he said.

Yair Lapid and Benny Gantz, leaders of the Blue and White party, hold a press conference in Tel Aviv on March 21, 2019. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

He sharply rejected the suggestion that the timing of Wednesday’s announcement that Israel had recovered the remains of Sgt. First Class Zachary Baumel, who was apparently killed in the First Lebanon War’s battle of Sultan Yacoub in 1982 at the age of 21, could be connected to the election next week.

Zachary Baumel. (JTA/Courtesy Miriam Baumel)

“This is a utter nonsense — the date was determined due to operational considerations that occurred during the last 48 hours, when the various checks were completed,” he said.

Further attacking Gantz, Netanyahu said he thought that the man he appointed as IDF chief of staff would not be able to handle the job of prime minister.

“It’s too big for him. He is being crushed under the pressure,” Netanyahu said, claiming this was the real message of a controversial Likud campaign questioning Gantz’s mental stability.

Netanyahu similarly reversed accusations that Likud has used social media to spread fake news about his rivals. “They have used bots. Not us. They are responsible for spreading lies, not us,” he said.

Blue and White consistently polled ahead of Likud in the month after it was formed in February through a merger of Gantz’s Israel Resilience and Lapid’s centrist Yesh Atid party, but has recently seen its lead slip. A Wednesday poll by the Haaretz newspaper saw Likud leading a possible 67-seat bloc after the April 9 election and beating Blue and White 30-17.

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