In a series of media interviews released on Thursday, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett lambasted opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu, touted his handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, and credited himself with saving the nation from “falling into the abyss.”
Speaking with the Haaretz daily, Bennett recalled a meeting he held with Netanyahu last May, saying the longtime prime minister began issuing wild threats against him once it became clear that Bennett would be joining his rivals in forming a government, pushing the longtime premier from power.
“You should know that I’ll send my whole machinery against you, the army,” Bennett quoted Netanyahu as telling him, adding that he made a dive bomber motion with his arm. “I’ll send the UAVs after you, and we’ll see.”
The Haaretz interviewer then asked Bennett, “I assume he didn’t mean the IDF or the air force?”
“No. He was talking about his army of bots, the [social media] groups, his people on the radio, TV and online,” Bennett reportedly responded. (Bennett’s interpretation of what Netanyahu meant by the threat was not included in interview excerpts published by Haaretz on Thursday, but was included in a Channel 13 report on the interview. The full Haaretz interview is set to appear on Friday.)
Bennett additionally accused Netanyahu of “spreading chaos, hysteria and a lack of faith” in the current government.
“Netanyahu built one of the most effective propaganda machines ever,” the prime minister further told the Walla news site. “It invents stories at an insane pace. You know yesterday I found out my mom is Catholic.”
“There is a machine here that produces poison and hatred… with a radio station and television station, thousands of bots and groups that invent completely fake [news] and push it on social media. Everything is in the service of one man,” Bennett said, in similar vein, in an interview with the Ynet news site.
Still, the premier also told Haaretz that he prefers Netanyahu plead out and avoid jail time in his criminal trial, and he expressed misgivings about his own government’s newly approved probe of bribery suspicions around a massive submarine deal backed by Netanyahu.
Bennett abstained during Sunday’s cabinet vote to establish a state commission of inquiry into the submarine purchases.
“I’m not crazy about commissions on inquiry. Ultimately, everything depends on the integrity of the people who are leading. But I saw how important this is to my friends,” he said.
The prime minister also criticized his predecessor over his Iran policy.
“They knock us and we don’t knock them. They covered us in octopus tentacles and we hit the arms, the emissaries, instead of striking the head,” he said.
Netanyahu’s Likud party later released a statement slamming Bennett.
“Bennett is panicking. He failed on the coronavirus, economy and security,” Likud said. “Bennett — you failed!”
In the interviews, Bennett also hit out at his former political partner, Religious Zionism MK Bezalel Smotrich, who took heat this week for criticizing former Supreme Court chief justice Miriam Naor hours after she died.
“What Smotrich said was despicable,” Bennett said. “There was a capturing of the concept ‘Religious Zionism.’ All the religious Zionist people that I know, who served with me in the army, the Smotriches don’t represent them. They are ashamed.”
Responding to the premier, Smotrich tweeted, “Bennett is under pressure and justifiably so.”
On the COVID pandemic, Bennett told Walla that Israel is doing better than everywhere else in the world, apparently ignoring record-setting cases, rising hospitalization rates and a death toll jumping by dozens each day, though the latter figures remain well below past outbreaks relative to infection numbers.
According to Our World in Data, Israel currently leads the world in intensive care admissions relative to population, and a New York Times ranking listed Israel in first place for infections per capita for most of this week.
Speaking to Ynet, Bennett noted that he was the first leader to shut down air travel and also claimed that he was the first leader in the world to recognize the Omicron variant, even before South Africa.
“We recognized the extraordinary phenomenon even before the country where it was happening. I was the first leader in the world to inform the public about the Omicron phenomenon. At that time, the disease wasn’t even here yet,” he said.
He claimed Israel has built a “radar” to identify new variants early, but no details were included in the published portion of the interview.
The full interviews with Walla and Ynet are also due to be published on Friday.