Netanyahu goes to Washington
With less than two weeks before Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is scheduled to address the U.S. Congress on Iran, Justice Salim Joubran, who chairs the Central Election Committee, ruled on Monday that the speech will not be broadcast live. Instead, it will be aired on Israeli television with a five-minute delay to permit editing of any electioneering by Netanyahu. The speech continues to generate debate both in Israel and in the United States. A number of Democratic members of Congress sent a letter to House Speaker John Boehner urging him to postpone the speech until after the March 17 elections. On Thursday, Vice President Joseph Biden’s office announced that he would be traveling to Latin America during the first week of March, confirming earlier reports that the vice president will be absent for Netanyahu’s address.
State Comptroller releases report on the Netanyahu’s expenditures
On Tuesday, exactly one month before Israelis cast their votes, State Comptroller Joseph Shapira issued a scathing report documenting excessive spending by the prime minister since Netanyahu took office in 2009. The report found that “[c]osts were not commensurate with the bedrock principles of proportionality, reasonability, saving and efficiency.” Details from the report continue to dominate Israeli headlines and have sparked criticism from Netanyahu’s rivals. Polling taken in the immediate aftermath of the report’s release—including a poll from Israel’s Channel 2 and another from Galei Tzahal (Army Radio)—shows that the electorate remains relatively unchanged.
Likud’s initial response sought to downplay the report, arguing that in 2012, former president Shimon Peres’s household expenditures were 20 times higher than Netanyahu’s reported expenses, and attributing the spending increase at the Prime Minister’s official residence to the Netanyahu family’s former housekeeper, Meni Naftali. A day later, Netanyahu went on the offensive, arguing that the media frenzy around the report was a “smoke screen meant to allow [former justice minister and Hatnua party leader] Tzipi Livni to infiltrate the Prime Minister’s Office.” Alluding to reports that the Zionist Camp is shifting its strategy away from a focus on shared leadership to rebrand Labor’s leader Isaac (“Bougie”)Herzog as a strong prospective premier, Netanyahu said that “[t]he reason they’re trying to hide her and occupy the public with other things is a good one: Tzipi Livni is a danger to the country.”
On Wednesday, Herzog and Livni led a group of Zionist Camp candidates who are former defense officials on a tour of Gaza-border communities. Herzog attacked Netanyahu for “failing to take care of security,” citing the failure to work with the Palestinian Authority to forestall unilateral Palestinian initiatives, and for jeopardizing the relationship with the United States. He also unveiled the three tenets of the Zionist Union’s security platform: ensuring the return of security forces to the area; building the necessary defense mechanisms, including underground walls to block Hamas tunnels; and pledging that as prime minister, he will not “release murderers with blood on their hands and won’t negotiate with Hamas.”
Earlier in the week Michael Oren, former Israeli ambassador to the U.S. who is running on Kulanu’s list and crafted the party’s foreign policy platform, discussed the current state of the U.S.-Israel relationship, his views on settlements, and future prospects for peace with the Palestinians in an interview with Haaretz. Oren said that: “[t]he Israeli left is waiting for Abu Mazen to come back to the negotiating table. He’s not coming . . . The government position is basically passive . . . and then you have the extreme right, which wants to annex 60 percent of the West Bank, which I guarantee will lose us not only Democratic, but Republican support in Congress. It will be dangerous, catastrophic for us.” Oren advocated unilateral Israeli moves to lay the groundwork for a future two-state solution, arguing that Israel “can’t wait” for Abbas.
Naftali Bennett, economy minister and Jewish Home Party chairman, earlier in the week told the Associated Press that the Palestinians should lower their expectations and stop pressing for statehood. Bennett, who has said he hopes to take over the defense portfolio in the next (Netanyahu-led) government, stated that Israel was “not going to give up more land. This approach has failed. Now, if that means that the world will penalize us, that is unfair but so be it.” Bennett also criticized Netanyahu for embracing what he described as “dovish” positions in negotiations with the Palestinians. On Thursday, Bennett repeated these sentiments during a visit to the West Bank settlement of Eli, to bolster support for his party in the religious-Zionist community. Bennett’s visit followed a similar campaign stop to Eli by Netanyahu the previous week.
Election Ban Overturned
On Wednesday, in a vote of 8 to 1, the High Court overturned last week’s decision of the Central Election Committee barring MK Haneen Zoabi (of the Joint Arab party List) and the extreme right-wing activist Baruch Marzel from running in the elections. Recent polling suggests that Marzel, who currently holds the fourth spot on the list of Yachad (HaAm Itanu), Eli Yishai’s new party, will likely have a seat in the 20th Knesset. Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman joined other right-wing lawmakers in condemning the court’s ruling, calling it “a mark of disgrace against Israeli democracy.”
This week in campaign videos:
Likud launched a new campaign ad, released on Netanyahu’s Facebook page, which has already gone viral. The ad introduces a new slogan, “vote for Bougie? Now you’re stuck with Tzipi,” underscoring for the electorate that a vote for Herzog is really a package deal.
Kulanu released a new campaign ad this week, urging voters who “love the rainforests” to vote for its candidates, instead of Yesh Atid, whose current platform is 228 pages long.
Other campaign news:
Earlier this week, at the Haaretz Democracy Conference, President Reuven Rivlin was asked by the newspaper’s editor Aluf Benn whom he would task with forming the next government—the head of the largest faction or the individual who received the recommendation of the majority of the parties. Rivlin stated that “Israel’s constitutional law is clear to me. It is clear to everyone that the MK who will receive the opportunity to establish a government is the one whom I will think has the best chances, after consulting with all the factions. If there are factions that try to evade answering, I will not let go of them until they reply. . . . There will not be any surprises in this matter, although there were times in the past when I was considered a surprising person too.”
In a further blow to Aryeh Deri and Shas, Rabbi Yoram Abergel, a prominent Sephardic rabbi, announced that he was withdrawing his support from Shas in favor of Yachad. Last December, Abergel announced that he planned to abstain from the upcoming election and would not publicly endorse a candidate.
At a Jewish Home Party campaign event in Haifa on Wednesday, LGBT rights activists who attended the event to protest the party’s position against legalizing same-sex marriage were assaulted after a member of the audience unfurled a pride flag and heckled Naftali Bennett during his speech. The party’s official response criticized left-wing activists for inciting violence at its campaign event and Bennett, through his Facebook page, called on Herzog to condemn the protesters.
In an interview with Walla! Moshe Kahlon, the former Likud minister and currently the founder and chairman of the newly established Kulanu Party, said that both Netanyahu and Herzog are seeking an endorsement from him in in advance of the election, and that he would not rule out recommending either candidate prior to the election next month. According to Kahlon, “whoever adopts our platform—that is my condition.”
On Thursday morning, Likud withdrew its petition for an injunction against the grassroots non-governmental organization V15, stating that there was insufficient evidence linking the organization—which is working to unseat Netanyahu—to the Zionist Union or any other political faction.