Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his allies are dragging out the political process, seeking to undermine a new government set to remove him from power, as the head of the Israel Security Agency warned of incitement to violence in the charged environment.
Using language reminiscent of former US President Donald Trump, Netanyahu falsely accused a newly-formed coalition of eight parties poised to unseat him within days of “election fraud.”
The Speaker of the Knesset, a close ally of Netanyahu, refused to announce a date for the swearing in of the new government. By law, he has up to a week, but the largely technical process has traditionally been carried out as quickly as possible once a new government is announced.
The delay is “in contradiction” to the country’s democratic traditions, said Yohanan Plesner, director of the Israel Democracy Institute. “All of a sudden, we are all aware of the intricate aspects of this process and the ability of the speaker to stretch and extend this period in order to allow the Prime Minister to try to subvert the process.”
But Netanyahu is determined not to go quietly. Unlike Trump, who baselessly spoke of stolen votes and miscounts, Netanyahu claimed that his rival right-wing parties defrauded voters by supporting a coalition with left-wing parties.
“We are witnessing the greatest election fraud in the history of the country, in my opinion in the history of any democracy,” Netanyahu said Sunday to lawmakers from his right-wing Likud party.
The unfounded claim came as Israel’s domestic security chief issued a rare public warning that the increasingly extreme discourse could incite violence.
On Sunday, a member of Netanyahu’s Likud party compared Naftali Bennett, the man set to replace Netanyahu, to a “suicide bomber.”
After 12 years in office, Israel’s longest serving prime minister faces being ousted by a diverse coalition of political parties united primarily by their shared desire to remove him.
In a last-ditch effort to hold onto power, Netanyahu has marshaled his supporters to pressure rival politicians to defect ahead of a parliamentary vote of confidence, the final stage in formalizing the new government.
The vote could be held as early as Wednesday, but is widely expected to be held next Monday, the latest possible day allowable by law.
Counter protests took place Monday outside the home of Nir Orbach, a member of the Yamina party, who was seen as the politician most likely to vote against the new government. One protest urged Orbach to defect and possibly sink the coalition, while a separate protest encouraged him to support the coalition and oust Netanyahu.
Netanyahu has focused his ire on a broken campaign promise by Bennett, head of the small right-wing Yamina party.
Bennett, who pledged not to join forces with centrist leader Yair Lapid, went on to form an improbable coalition with his Yesh Atid party and a series of other smaller parties from across the political spectrum following Israel’s fourth election in two years. Under a “rotation” agreement, Bennett will serve as prime minister first, followed by Lapid.
On Sunday, Bennett urged Israel’s longtime leader to support an orderly transition of power and not to leave “scorched earth” behind him.
“This is not a catastrophe, this is not a disaster. It is a change of government. An ordinary and usual event in any democratic country,” Bennett said at a press conference Sunday night at the 120-seat Parliament, known as the Knesset. “The system in the state of Israel is not monarchical. No one has a monopoly on power.”
Netanyahu’s time in office has been overshadowed by a long-running corruption trial, in which he has denied wrongdoing. His critics have alternately accused him of exploiting the pandemic and an eruption of conflict with Gaza to maintain his grip on power and derail his criminal trial.
The last few months in Israel have seen a series of events characterized by incitement and intolerance, including protests that turned violent and threats against politicians.
Bennett said that members of his Yamina party and the New Hope party – two right-wing parties taking part in the unity coalition – have been the target of a campaign “aimed at breaking them,” including curses and threats, in order to collapse the new government.
Last week, a member of the left-wing Meretz party, Tamar Zandberg, left her home because of explicit threats against both her and her toddler. Zandberg has called on Netanyahu to “immediately stop the hatred machine that is responsible for threats and public figures receiving added security which can reach violence and even murder.”
And at least two members of the Yamina party, including Bennett, have been given added security because of threats made against them.
While calling for the swearing-in of the new government to take place on Wednesday, Bennett placed the blame at the feet of Netanyahu for the charged discourse.
“From here, I call on Mr. Netanyahu: Calm down. Free up the country and allow it to move on. It is allowed for people to vote for a government, even if you are not in charge of it,” Bennett said. “It’s not ‘us and them.’ No one here is an enemy.”
On Saturday, the head of Israel’s Shin Bet internal security service, Nadav Argaman, warned in an unprecedented public statement that “an intensifying and severe increase in the violent and inciting discourse,” especially online, could lead to real-world violence.
“It is our duty to come out with a clear and definitive call to stop the discourse of incitement and violence. The responsibility for calming the winds and restraining the discourse rests on all of our shoulders,” Argaman said.
But Netanyahu’s supporters are showing no signs of trying to de-escalate tensions.
A member of Netanyahu’s Likud party and one of the prime minister’s key allies, May Golan, on Sunday compared the mission of Bennett and New Hope leader Gideon Saar of being “suicide bombers” and “terrorists.”
“There is a world of difference, but they’re like terrorists who no longer believe in anything, who go out on their suicide mission, and even if they know that it’s a death sentence, it doesn’t matter to them,” Golan said, speaking on Knesset TV.
Pressed repeatedly by the anchors to retract or soften her rhetoric, Golan refused, insisting that she was not exaggerating.
Responding to the Shin Bet’s warning of incitement, Miri Regev, Likud transportation minister, said in a statement sent to media: “We will continue protesting against the theft of right-wing votes in a respectful and democratic way without violence.”
On Monday, Israeli police refused to grant permission for a nationalist “flag march” through the Muslim quarter of Jerusalem’s Old City this Thursday. The provocative annual parade, which usually occurs on Jerusalem Day, was canceled one month ago because of concerns that it would inflame an already tense situation.
Betzalel Smotrich, a Knesset member and one of the organizers of the parade, called the decision a “shameful surrender to terrorism and Hamas threats.” Several other lawmakers said they would march regardless of the police decision.
CNN’s Amir Tal and Kareem Khadder contributed to this report.