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Israeli Election Rallies Turn Violent, While Netanyahu Makes Controversial Campaign Promise
Workers hang election campaign posters for Israel's Likud party bearing a portrait of its leader, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu (bottom), and Yesh Atid party chief Yair Lapid (top) on a billboard in the Israeli coastal city of Netanya, on March 14, 2021. (Jack Guez/AFP via Getty Images)

Israeli Election Rallies Turn Violent, While Netanyahu Makes Controversial Campaign Promise

Candidates quarrel with nine days remaining

Israel on Sunday entered its final week of campaigning ahead of next Tuesday’s general election, and the tensions, like the stakes, could not be higher.

On Saturday, a brawl broke out between supporters of opposing right-wing parties, outside a rally headlined by former Likud minister and current New Hope chair, Gideon Sa’ar.

Bibi’s thugs were sent to blow up our rally and attacked our people

Sa’ar, who left his longtime political home in December to form a new party, arrived at the scene escorted by police and was ushered into the venue after the brouhaha was quelled.

Minutes earlier, dozens of supporters of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu violently confronted New Hope voters and operatives, throwing stones and eggs at the crowd gathered to hear Sa’ar speak.

According to New Hope officials, glass bottles were also lobbed by the rowdy group, which proceeded to play loud music on mounted loudspeakers, trying to drown out the political speeches.

“Bibi’s thugs were sent to blow up our rally and attacked our people,” a statement sent to The Media Line by New Hope read.

“Explosives, rocks and eggs were tossed, and loudspeakers yelling ‘traitor’ were blasting throughout the evening. A man was injured, lost consciousness and was hospitalized. Netanyahu has lost it completely.”

Three months ago, Sa’ar departed his home of some two decades with a bang, accusing Netanyahu of fostering a “personality cult” and using the party as “a tool for his personal interests, including those pertaining to his legal battles.”

Israel’s prime minister is currently standing trial for charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust.

Sa’ar has since vowed not to join his former party in any government it may form after the March 23 elections.

Yet while initial polls showed the former Likud lawmaker grabbing over 20 seats out of the nation’s 120-member parliament, the latest surveys, three months after New Hope’s formation, have it reaching just over 10.

Netanyahu has hardly paid Sa’ar any attention, preferring instead to focus his energy on the center-left candidate, Opposition Leader Yair Lapid.

“Any vote for Sa’ar or [another right-wing contender, Naftali] Bennett is a vote for Lapid,” Netanyahu again warned Saturday, hoping to scare right-wing voters, who have tired of the prime minister but still fear a Lapid-led government, back to the Likud ranks.

During the primetime TV interview, the prime minister made a startling statement, promising to appoint the current head of Israel’s intelligence agency, the Mossad, to a position within his next government, if elected.

According to Israeli law, Mossad chief Yossi Cohen, scheduled to finish his term in June, must wait a three-year “cooling-off” period before jumping into politics and serving as a minister.

Netanyahu’s promise was later explained as meant to imply that Cohen might be asked to fill a nonpolitical role, such as special envoy to certain countries. Yet the calls on Cohen to clarify the prime minister’s remarks, seen as an unprecedented merging of party politics and national security affairs, were eventually answered on Sunday.

“There is no political connection between the head of the Mossad and the prime minister, or the Likud party,” Cohen’s office said in an extremely rare statement. “His entire work is done for the sole purpose of keeping Israel and its people safe, with no regard as to the identity of the prime minister.”

Generally speaking, these positions should not be political appointees. My personal preference is for the head of the Mossad to be unaffiliated and loyal to the leadership and its policies in the national, dutiful sense, not a personal one

Uzi Arad, a Mossad veteran who also served as Netanyahu’s national security adviser, believes the appearance of politicizing the spy organization should be avoided at all costs.

“There are things that are illegal. There are things that are absolutely fine, on the up and up and only for the good of the country. And then there are things that aren’t illegal, but kind of ‘stink,’” Arad said of Netanyahu’s pledge.

“The appointment of Yossi could be justified, depending on the matter at hand. If there is a role within the governmental branch that he can fill well by utilizing his skills, and that will benefit the national interest, that’s definitely reasonable.”

“But the prime minister is using this promise now, just before the elections and knowing Yossi is loyal to him, to gain political points,” Arad told The Media Line.

“That doesn’t mean the move itself is wrong,” he stressed.

Cohen is seen as extremely close with Netanyahu and his wife, Sara. Last week, Cohen’s efforts in 2013 to convince the couple’s billionaire friend Arnon Milchan to lobby for his appointment as National Security Council chief were revealed in a blockbuster news report.

“Generally speaking, these positions should not be political appointees,” Arad says. “My personal preference is for the head of the Mossad to be unaffiliated and loyal to the leadership and its policies in the national, dutiful sense, not a personal one.”

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