By Ben Sales
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu condemned violent rhetoric on “every side” of the political spectrum Sunday but also claimed that Israel’s incoming government, which will replace him, is the result of “the greatest electoral fraud in the history of the country.”
Netanyahu’s speech came as the head of Israel’s Shin Bet security service warned of a rise in rhetoric that encourages violence. A pro-Netanyahu lawmaker compared two of his rivals to “terrorists” facing a “death sentence,” and members of the incoming coalition have received death threats in recent days.
At least one American Middle East analyst compared Netanyahu’s words to former President Donald Trump’s rhetoric ahead of Jan. 6.
“Recently, we have identified an increase and severe exacerbation in violent and inciting discourse, especially on social media,” said Nadav Argaman, the head of the Shin Bet, which is roughly equivalent to the FBI in the United States. “This discourse could be interpreted by certain groups or individuals as permission to commit violent and illegal activity that could, God forbid, cause harm to human life.”
Last week, an ideologically diverse coalition of Netanyahu’s opponents declared that they would be able to form a government that would end Netanyahu’s 12-year run as prime minister, the longest in Israeli history. The coalition will have the narrowest of majorities in Israel’s parliament, the Knesset, and needs to be voted in before it takes office.
Netanyahu and his allies have been trying to persuade members of the coalition to defect and vote against it, which would deprive it of a majority. The vote approving the new government will be held on or before June 14.
In the days surrounding the announcement of the new government, right-wing groups have protested outside the private homes of politicians in the new coalition, and some lawmakers have received added security after receiving threats to their lives.
An open letter from leading right-wing religious Zionist rabbis published on Saturday night called on readers to “do everything so that this government is not formed.” Afterward, prominent signatories said that they were not condoning violence.
In addition, Israeli officials are weighing whether to allow right-wing activists to march in Jerusalem’s Old City on Thursday, in a parade that has previously featured racist chants. The parade was rescheduled for Thursday after having been interrupted by rocket fire from Gaza last month.
On Sunday, a lawmaker from Netanyahu’s Likud party, May Golan, compared two members of the incoming coalition to “suicide bombers:” Naftali Bennett, the incoming prime minister, and Gideon Saar — both of whom were Netanyahu allies before joining with his political rivals.
“Not at all to equate these things, but I compare them today to suicide bombers,” said Golan in an Israeli TV interview. “They’re like terrorists who don’t believe in anything, go out on their suicide mission, [and] even if they know they’re getting a death sentence, they don’t care.”
Earlier that day, in a speech to Likud lawmakers, Netanyahu publicly condemned violent rhetoric for the first time since the new government was announced. He claimed that he and his family had also received death threats, which he said weren’t treated with equal weight.
“We condemn all incitement and violence from every side,” he said in his speech Sunday. “The principle needs to be clear and the same for everyone. Incitement and violence, and incitement to violence, will always be out of bounds.”
But he added, “You can’t treat criticism from the right as incitement and criticism from the left as a legitimate act of free expression.”
Immediately after saying that, Netanyahu claimed that the incoming government was the result of historic election fraud. And at the end of his speech, he said, as he has multiple times recently, that the new government “endangers the state of Israel in a way we haven’t seen for many years.”
“We are witnesses to the greatest electoral fraud in the history of the country, and in my opinion, in the history of democracy,” he said. “And so people feel, justifiably, very cheated, and they’re reacting to that. You can’t silence them.”
He added that “the commentators, the studios, and the whole absurd propaganda machine that has come together for their benefit — you don’t need to be afraid to go after them, my friends. Because that’s part of the fraud.”
The outgoing prime minister also made clear that he has no plans to retire if the new government takes office. Netanyahu, who is slated to become leader of the parliamentary opposition, said that if the new government “is established, God forbid, we will bring it down very quickly.”
One American scholar who studies Israel, Aaron David Miller, wrote on Twitter that Netanyahu’s speech recalled former President Donald Trump’s rhetoric following his defeat last year, which led to the violent insurrection at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6.
“Foreboding echoes of Trump,” tweeted Miller, a former Middle East analyst at the State Department. “Netanyahu calls election biggest election fraud. Is an Israeli January 6th coming?”
Meanwhile, the heads of the new coalition are preparing to take office. Leaders of its eight parties, which span the political right and left and include an Arab-Israeli party, met on Sunday for the first time since their coalition was announced.
In a speech Sunday, Bennett called on Netanyahu to move on and let the new government take office. He condemned violence but also said that “not every opposition to the government is incitement” and that politicians need to “develop a thick skin.”
“It’s not a catastrophe, it’s not a tragedy, it’s a change in government — a normal event in any democratic state,” Bennett said. “I call on Mr. Netanyahu: Let go. Allow the state to move on. People are allowed to vote for a government even if you don’t lead it.”