JERUSALEM – Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Sunday rejected accusations of incitement against his political opponents, after security services warned of an escalation in violent discourse.
In power for 12 consecutive years, Netanyahu faces being toppled by a motley coalition of lawmakers united only by their shared hostility towards him.
Mired in a court battle on corruption charges that could see him face prison time, the veteran political mastermind has mobilised his supporters to peel off defectors ahead of a confirmation vote.
On Saturday, the head of Israel’s Shin Bet internal security agency Nadav Argaman issued a rare public statement warning of a “severe escalation in violent and inciting discourse” on social media.
“This discourse could be understood by certain groups or individuals as enabling illegal violence that could even cost a life,” Argaman said, calling on public officials to “issue a clear call to stop this discourse”.
A spokesperson for the Shin Bet would not tell AFP whether Argaman was referring to a certain group or person being threatened, merely saying: “This is a general atmosphere that must stop.”
Politicians opposing Netanyahu and some local media outlets, however, have interpreted Argaman’s statement as a warning to the premier.
“There is a very thin line between political criticism and inciting violence,” Netanyahu said Sunday.
“We can’t say that when criticism comes from the right, it’s incitement to violence, and when it comes from the left, that it’s a justified use of freedom of expression,” he told a meeting of Likud party members.
“I condemn all incitement to violence,” he added.
– ‘Worrying attitude’ –
Netanyahu claimed he himself was the target of an “even more serious” campaign and again called the coalition that seeks to replace him a “dangerous left-wing government”.
The alliance comprises three right-wing, two centrist and two left-wing parties as well as an Arab Islamic conservative party.
Under the coalition agreement, Naftali Bennett of the right-wing nationalist Yamina party would be premier for two years, to be replaced by the centrist Lapid in 2023.
Bennett, in a television appearance later Sunday, urged Netanyahu to call off his “violent” campaign against right-wing lawmakers in the new coalition.
“On the one hand, there is legitimate criticism, on the other, a worrying attitude,” he said.
Netanyahu’s supporters have been working hard to win defections from Yamina deputies uncomfortable working with Arabs and Jewish leftists.
Some have held demonstrations outside the homes of Yamina lawmakers.
Fending off pressure from Netanyahu, Bennett called on the speaker of parliament, Yariv Levin, to hold a vote of confidence — the last step to formalise the new government — on Wednesday.
“We know that Netanyahu is putting pressure (on you) to delay the vote in order to try to find deserters, but you must act for the good of the state, not the good of Mr Netanyahu,” he said.
Parliament’s security committee said it would hold an emergency meeting Monday at 9:00 am (0600 GMT) “in light of the unusual warning issued by the head of Shin Bet” as well as over calls from far-right figures for a march in Israeli-occupied east Jerusalem on Thursday.