Benny Gantz, former army chief and chairman of the Hosen L'Yisrael party, launched a harsh attack on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during his second major campaign speech on Tuesday, while calling on Yesh Atid Chairman Yair Lapid to meet with him "tonight" to discuss potentially joining forces ahead of the April general election.
Netanyahu is "anxious, afraid, [and] sweating," Benny Gantz said as he unveiled his party's election slate.
"His court jesters are no longer laughing, and his party is terrified," Gantz said, describing Netanyahu as the "sole ruler" who has controlled Israel's ruling party for the past decade and saying that the prime minister ruled "through incitement, deception and fearmongering."
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The would-be prime minister pointed to his experiences as military chief of staff in drawing a contrast between himself and Netanyahu. "When I was lying in the muddy trenches with my soldiers during freezing winter nights, you, Benjamin Netanyahu, left Israel in order to learn English and practice it at fancy cocktail parties.
"In the days when I was commanding the [elite Air Force] Shaldag Unit on life-threatening operations in enemy nations, you, Benjamin Netanyahu, courageously and determinedly forged your path between makeup stations in television studios," Gantz said.
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Netanyahu fired back in a Facbook post: “Benny Gantz, shame on you,” he wrote. Invoking his military service in the Israel Defense Forces’ elite special-operations unit, he said: “I risked my life for this country time after time. I was wounded in a battle with terrorists.
“I almost lost my life in a battle in the Suez Canal, for the sake of the security of the state you want to put in peril with unilateral withdrawals and with [your] support of the dangerous nuclear deal with Iran,” Netanyahu added. “The citizens of Israel will choose between a strong right-wing government led by me and a weak left-wing government led by you.”
Gantz also criticized a culture in which fealty to the prime minister was paramount. "In order to destroy any chance of a change in government, there has developed a dangerous discourse of labeling people based on their loyalty to the sole ruler," Gantz said. "Anyone who doesn't bend a knee is marked as a traitor."
He vowed that after the election, "We will tell Benjamin Netanyahu: Thank you for ten years. You lost our security. You lost our people. We are picking it up from here."
The Hosen L'Yisrael chairman also said that he would be calling Lapid, who has been in talks to run on a joint ticket with Gantz's party, after delivering the speech to offer that they meet "tonight."
Former Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon and the head of Israel's largest labor federation lead Hosen L'Yisrael ticket for the April 9 election, which was announced during the event. Histadrut chief Avi Nissenkorn has been placed third, after Gantz (at the top of the ticket as party chairman) and Ya'alon, who announced a joint Knesset bid last month.
The announcement came a day after Lapid's Yesh Atid presented its Knesset slate, and amid reports of negotiations between Hosen L'Yisrael, Yesh Atid and Orli Levi-Abekasis's Gesher party ahead of a Thursday deadline to officially register parties with Israeli's Central Elections Committee.
Nissenkorn, who is set to leave his post, is seen as a social justice candidate. His recruitment to Hosen L'Yisrael breaks tradition of Histadrut leaders' links with the Labor Party, which plunged in recent polls.
Fourth on the party's slate is television journalist Miki Haimovich, the party's top female candidate. Eight women are featured in the party's top 25 spots.
Haimovich is followed by Yoaz Hendel, a former spokesman for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu; former Yeruham Mayor Michael Biton; U.S.-born educator Chili Tropper; Zvi Hauser, a former cabinet secretary to Netanyahu; former head of the Israel Electric Corporation Orit Farkash-Hacohen; and activist Meirav Cohen in the tenth spot.
Druze anchorwoman Gadir Mreeh, at the 15th spot, is the top non-Jewish candidate on the party's ticket, which doesn't feature any other non-Jews in the top 30. Eitan Ginzburg, Israel's first openly gay mayor who lost re-election in Ra'anana in October, is 19th on the list.
Former Tel Aviv deputy mayor Asaf Zamir is 11th on the party's slate. The list also includes two former heads of regional councils of Gaza border communities, Alon Shuster, on the 16th spot, and Yair Farjun, on the 26th spot.
In public opinion polls released Sunday by Channel 12 and Kan News, Hosen L’Yisrael appeared to have lost some of its strength and was predicted to receive 18-20 out of 120 Knesset seats, with Netanyahu's Likud maintaining a solid lead with 30 seats.
Polls published in recent weeks put Gantz as Netanyahu's main rival in the upcoming election, with some predicting that a joint Gantz-Lapid ticket could overtake Likud.