Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has rejected accusations of incitement and said the newly formed Israeli coalition that is poised to unseat him was the result of “the greatest election fraud” in the history of democracy.
In power for 12 consecutive years, Netanyahu faces being toppled by a motley coalition of eight parties united only by their shared hostility towards him.
“We are witnessing the greatest election fraud in the history of the country, in my opinion in the history of any democracy,” Netanyahu said in comments to legislators from his right-wing Likud party.
Mired in a court battle on corruption charges that could see him face prison time, Netanyahu 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 news agency 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.
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 a party of Palestinian citizens of Israel.
Under the coalition agreement, Naftali Bennett of the far-right Yamina party would be premier for two years, to be replaced by the centrist Yair Lapid of the Yesh Atid party in 2023.
Netanyahu’s supporters have been working hard to win defections from Yamina deputies uncomfortable working with Palestinian citizens of Israel and Jewish leftists.
Some have held demonstrations outside the homes of Yamina legislators.
A parliamentary vote of confidence, the last step to formalise the new government, could be held on Wednesday or the following Monday, according to Israeli media.
In a televised speech, Bennett called on Yariv Levin, parliament’s speaker and a Netanyahu loyalist, not to try to buy time to encourage members of the new coalition to defect, and said he should hold the vote on Wednesday. There was no immediate comment from Levin.
“Let go. Let the country move forward,” Bennett said, addressing his remarks to Netanyahu, who has been in office since 2009.
“Mr Netanyahu, don’t leave scorched earth behind you. All of us, the entire nation, want to remember the good you did during your service.”
Parliament’s security committee said it would hold an emergency meeting on Monday at 9am (06:00 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.