Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu faced an unprecedented attack on Thursday by four former IDF chiefs of staff – including two who served as his defense minister – who accused him of fear-mongering for political reasons and harming the country.
The most recently retired chiefs of staff, Benny Gantz and Gabi Ashkenazi, have formed a movement called Pnima that will focus on attacking Netanyahu on domestic issues. While Pnima’s co-founder, former education minister Shai Piron, said the movement was apolitical, it could be used as a platform for Gantz and Ashkenazi to enter politics and challenge Netanyahu.
Gantz raised eyebrows on Thursday by joining a group of protesters from the periphery who are marching from the Negev to the Finance Ministry in Jerusalem, demanding fair allocations of state funds to local authorities. The group is led by Yeroham’s Labor Party mayor Michael Biton.
Former defense minister Moshe Ya’alon, who resigned from Netanyahu’s cabinet on May 20, announced during a speech at the Herzliya Conference that he will run for prime minister in the next election. He hinted in closed conversations that he would form a new party, saying that he “would not be anyone’s No. 2.”
Without mentioning Netanyahu by name, Ya’alon attacked the prime minister’s focus on Iran’s nuclearization.
“At this point, and in the foreseeable future, there is no existential threat facing Israel,” Ya’alon said. “Thus it is fitting that the country’s leadership stop scaring the citizenry and stop giving them the feeling that we are standing before a second Holocaust.”
Ya’alon said that it is not security threats that keep him awake at night but rather the social and moral problems facing Israel.
“If there is something that I lose sleep about at night, it’s not the truckloads of weapons in Syria and Lebanon, or Iran’s attempts to wage terror.
Israel has the capabilities to deal with these forcefully and with sophistication. If there is something I lose sleep over, it’s the cracks in Israel’s society, the erosion of basic values, the attempts to harm IDF soldiers and their commanders. It is a fact: the leadership is tempestuous and being dragged.”
The speech was the first given by Ya’alon since his resignation, a decision he said he made “following the recent conduct” of Netanyahu, and “in light of my lack of faith in him.” Ya’alon’s decision to quit came after Netanyahu ousted him as defense minister in favor of Avigdor Liberman, as part of negotiations to bring the Yisrael Beytenu party into the coalition.
Netanyahu released a statement in response, recalling that Ya’alon said just four months ago in Munich that Iran is an existential threat to Israel.
“You cannot express full faith in the leadership when you are inside and say the complete opposite when you are outside, so no importance should be attributed to such political barbs,” Netanyahu said. “Real leadership does not deny threats. It sees their presence and prepares to deal with them, and that is exactly what we will continue to do.”
Taking his swings at the fourth former IDF chief – and a former defense minister – who criticized him, Netanyahu said in closed conversations that “Ehud Barak is desperate to stay in the public’s consciousness, so he makes a point of attacking me once a month.”
In his speech at the Herzliya Conference, Barak hinted that he could make a political comeback.
He accused Netanyahu of lacking vision, and said that he alone is responsible for his government’s failures.
“Leaders around the world do not believe a word said by Netanyahu and his government,” Barak said. “Who in the name of God gave Netanyahu the authority to lead us to the edge of an abyss? Barak agreed with Ya’alon that Iran does not pose an existential threat. He warned of Israel becoming Belfast, Bosnia, old Johannesburg, or Europe ahead of World War II.
“If it looks like the sparks of fascism, walks like the sparks of fascism, and barks like the sparks of fascism, it is the sparks of fascism,” said Barak, mocking Netanyahu’s 2012 “nuclear duck” speech at the United Nations.
The Likud released a statement attacking all the generals, saying that the Herzliya Conference had become “a primary for the party of the frustrated to be the messiah of the Left.”
The party said all four generals spoke differently when they led the army.
“The government of Israel was not abducted, it was elected by the nation,” the Likud said.
“It is odd that people who speak so highly of democracy do not understand this.”
Netanyahu was also attacked at the Herzliya Conference by Zionist Union leader Isaac Herzog, who would have become defense minister in a year if a coalition agreement negotiated by the two men had been completed.
Herzog said the tragedy of Netanyahu’s current right-wing government was that without anyone in the Left in power, the prime minister had no one on the Left to blame for terrorist attacks, and no excuse for not squashing terrorism. He mocked Netanyahu’s coalition partners on the Right, calling Bayit Yehudi chairman Naftali Bennett “Batman” and Yisrael Beytenu head Avigdor Liberman “Popeye.”
Zionist Union MK Tzipi Livni also spoke at the conference, saying that a regional approach to solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict could begin tomorrow if Netanyahu actually believed in what he himself has been saying. She called for Israel to conduct an immediate referendum on whether it should keep the majority of the West Bank.
“It is absurd that the army is more pragmatic than the leadership,” Livni said. “Netanyahu is afraid to tell the IDF yes, because he is afraid of his collaborator, Bennett.”
Meanwhile, Netanyahu – who gave an address at the conference last year and was on the schedule to close the conference on Thursday night – did not participate.
Asked why the prime minister canceled, a spokesman in his office said that he didn’t cancel, but rather never formally accepted the invitation to appear.
While Netanyahu did speak there last year, he had not done so for a number of years prior to that. He has never used the forum as a platform to deliver major foreign policy speeches, as then-prime minister Ariel Sharon did in 2002 when he announced his support for the Road Map for Peace, and a year later when he unveiled his plan to disengage from the Gaza Strip.
Former prime minister Ehud Olmert also chose the platform to deliver a major speech, telling the conference in January 2006 – during his first foreign policy address as acting prime minister, after taking over from Sharon who was incapacitated by a stroke – that he backed the creation of a Palestinian state.Ben Hartman and Herb Keinon contributed to this report.