In Likud Campaign Launch, Netanyahu Says Election 'Is Not in Our Pocket'

The prime minister urges Likud supporters 'not to underestimate risk' of losing to 'leftist' Gantz and Lapid

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaking at the Likud campaign launch, March 4, 2019.
Moti Milrod

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told supporters Monday that the upcoming election "is not in our pocket. It won't be easy, it'll be a difficult fight." Speaking at his Likud party's campaign launch in central Israel, he said: "I wouldn't underestimate the danger that some of our supporters stay at home or not vote Likud".

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Slamming main rivals Benny Gantz and Yair Lapid, co-leaders of Kahol Lavan, Netanyahu said "those voting for Lapid and Gantz must know they're giving the leadership to the left."

Netanyahu claimed his adversaries are trying to hide their left-wing views. "Don’t be ashamed, you’re leftists; it’s okay to be leftist, just don’t hide it. Stand behind your positions. Let’s help them take their masks off."

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Netanyahu also called out his main political rivals for "reading off teleprompters" and sticking to "scripts by publicists. I’m speaking from the heart, not from a script." Gantz, Netanyahu said, is "a radish," the Hebrew equivalent of "plain vanilla."

Netanyahu reiterated that "the real choice in this election is [either] a strong right-wing government led by me or a weak left-wing government led by Lapid and Gantz, with the support of Arab parties," and said Kahol Lavan co-leaders would overturn his positions on West Bank settlements and the Iran nuclear deal, and let African asylum seekers into the country, by which "ending the Jewish democratic state."

Kahol Lavan said following his speech that Netanyahu "continues spreading lies and incitement. He will say anything to divert the conversation from the investigation and the indictment he now faces. Netanyahu knows he'll be going to trial within a year. He knows his time is up ... he is only worried about himself."

Opposition whip MK Shelly Yacimovich said "Netanyahu broke records of sowing divisions ... and records of narcissism, detachment and lack of awareness, with a Third-World style rhetoric. This is what the last days of an exhausted politician ... look like."

Boasting about his dipolomatic achievements, Netanyhu said in what appears to be a slip of the tongue that he had been on a official visit to Afghanistan, which doesn't have any diplomatic relations with Israel.

"When I meet with my friend, President Trump, when I meet with my friend President Putin, when I meet with world leaders in Beijing and Tokyo, in Rio de Janeiro and New Delhi, in Chad and Oman, in Afghanistan and Kazakhstan ... it fills me up with joy, [knowing] I represent you and all of Israel's citizens," he said. "I'm proud to represent our country and our people."

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu greeted by supporters in the Likud campaign launch event in central Israel, March 4, 2019.
Moti Milrod

Immediately after Netanyahu's speech ended, he tweeted that he "meant Azerbaijan" instead of Afghanistan, "but who knows, maybe during the next term..."

The prime minister also attacked the media for its supposed bias against him, and said draft indictment against him is "nothing new." Since its publication on Thursday, him and his "beloved wife" Sara have been getting "heart-warming support from millions of Israelis."

"Lapid and Gantz and their friends in the media know that most of the people support us," he added. "We have to bring as many voters to polling stations" on April 9.

Earlier on Monday, Israel's election committee said that Netanyahu's speech would be broadcast with a 10-minute delay at least, in order to allow for removal of election propaganda, which is illegal under Israeli law for the 60 days preceding a vote.

“The distinction between news and electioneering is left to the editors in chief of the broadcasting organizations, in accordance with professional journalistic considerations,” Election Committee Chair Hanan Melcer wrote.

Netanyahu said in response, “Every evening the leftist propaganda channels give an open platform to the left-wing party of Lapid and Gantz. Only in the case of the Likud is it ‘electioneering.’” 

He called on the public to watch his speech live on his Facebook page, where it will be streamed without delay and without censorship, as he put it.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu delivers a speech at the launch of Likud party election campaign in Ramat Gan, Israel March 4, 2019.
\ AMIR COHEN/ REUTERS

Netanyahu announced earlier Monday that he would not call the members of the Likud ticket up to the stage at the campaign launch event in Kfar Maccabiah, as he does not want to shake hands with rival Gideon Sa'ar, who is fifth on the slate.

Walking into the hall before his speech, Netanyahu shook hands with Sa'ar as the crowd cheered.

Last week, Sa'ar denounced the Likud video that attacked Kahol Lavan chairman Gantz on the background of military graves, saying that it was a “serious mistake in judgment and a direct contradiction of the Likud’s values.”

During last month’s Likud primary, Sa'ar managed to get into the top five despite Netanyahu’s efforts to dissuade party members from voting for him. The Likud tribunal later ordered a recounting of ballots for district representatives due to claims of irregularities in the overall vote count, but his ranking did not change. Sa’ar said after the primary, “I see the result as my greatest political achievement, even greater than the two times I came in first in the primaries in the past.”

A few days before the primary, Netanyahu said that “more than two or three people” had told him that Sa’ar was trying to promote himself as prime minister. According to Netanyahu, Sa'ar told these people that President Reuven Rivlin would not choose Netanyahu to form the next government because of Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit's planned indictment announcement. “I did not make this up,” Netanyahu added. “His maneuver will not work.”

In October, Netanyahu accused Sa’ar of “concocting a subversive trick” to replace him as prime minister after Likud won the next election, saying he had appealed to several Likud members for support. Israel Hayom reported in this context that Netanyahu believed Rivlin was planning to task another Knesset member from the ruling party to form the next government. Both Sa’ar and Rivlin vehemently denied that they were involved in any such move.

On Monday Rivlin said he would not accept, “attempts to cast aspersions on my judgment from any party or side on the political map,” after Israel Hayom reported that Netanyahu had told Likud ministers, “You know how I won’t have it easy with the man who lives in the house over the hill.”