Kafe Knesset: Election comes to Washington | Previewing Gantz’s AIPAC speech | Bibi threatens to sue Blue+White

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The Election Comes to Washington: The Israeli election relocates to Washington for the next three days, for AIPAC’s Policy Conference and meetings between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Donald Trump. Netanyahu’s main challenger, Benny Gantz, will address the conference Monday morning; Netanyahu will at the same time be at the White House, with reports that U.S. recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights — announced via Tweet on Thursday — will be made official at an executive order signing ceremony. For the last few days the issue of former U.S. intelligence analyst/Israeli spy Jonathan Pollard has also refused to die down, with some speculation that the Trump administration will soften his parole conditions and allow him to travel to Israel….

Bibi will give his conference address Tuesday morning after which he will head to Capitol Hill for meetings with the Senate and House leadership. That evening he will meet with Trump again for dinner. Aside from Bibi and Gantz, Yoaz Hendel and Pnina Tamano-Shata (Blue and White), Merav Michaeli and Stav Shafir (Labor), Regional Cooperation Minister Tzachi Hanegbi, Gideon Sa’ar, and Amir Ohana (Likud) are all set to speak at AIPAC. Tellingly, Education Minister Naftali Bennett (The New Right) canceled his planned trip to Washington late last week due to the “constraints of the election campaign” — arguably a sign of concern regarding his party’s languishing poll numbers….

Previewing Gantz at AIPAC: The Trump-Netanyahu summit notwithstanding, there is much anticipation this week surrounding Gantz’s speech at AIPAC and its possible impact on the Israeli election — now just 16 days away. According to two sources in Blue and White who spoke to Kafe Knesset, Gantz’s speech will give conference attendees (and everyone else watching closely) an introduction to Benny Gantz as both a person and leader. “He will surprise people,” one of the sources said. “People will see something new — a former IDF chief of staff, with the aura of a former soldier, emphasizing values that Americans take seriously. He’s that kind of figure.”  

In terms of substance, the speech will highlight three main themes. First, Israel and the Diaspora, in particular rebuilding relations between Israel and the Democratic Party and American Jewry writ large, upholding the importance of Israel as a bipartisan consensus issue. Second, the state of the Jewish world today, in particular the fight against antisemitism. And third, a security vision for Israel under a PM Gantz, with emphasis on maintaining Israel’s primacy as a regional power.

Gantz isn’t expected to stray too far from his previous policy pronouncements on security — including on the sensitive issue of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Gantz has in recent weeks downplayed the chances for any peace deal and, for that matter, taking unilateral steps in the West Bank; he said last week he doesn’t see any real partner on the Palestinian side at present. Trump’s Golan Heights announcement will of course be positively addressed, one of the sources said. Yet Gantz will emphasize not only the current U.S. administration’s  support, but also the contribution that previous administrations (and the American people) have made to Israel’s security throughout the years.

Despite the implicit criticism of Netanyahu’s handling of the U.S.-Israel relationship (and thus the need to “rebuild relations”), those expecting a full-frontal attack on the incumbent will be sorely disappointed. It’s not Gantz’s style, the sources emphasize — not in Israel (at least not usually) and certainly not overseas in English during a speech viewed as an address to the Jewish people.

Many observers have described the AIPAC conference and Trump’s Washington as Gantz straying onto Netanyahu’s “home turf.” Yet there was no concern in Blue and White about a tepid audience response nor second thoughts, as some have posited, about Gantz even accepting the invitation to speak. “It’s an important stage for a prime minister and it’s right for him to be there,” one source said. More than his policies, everyone will be looking at how Gantz presents — his English, his gravitas, the crowd reactions — especially the voting public back home. “It’s a completely different style and leader,” the source added. Gantz arguably doesn’t have to look more prime ministerial than Bibi; he just has to look prime ministerial.

Bibi Gives Interview and Threatens to Sue Blue and White: On his way to Ben Gurion Airport to fly out to Washington, Netanyahu made a surprise stop at Channel 12’s studios last night for his first mainstream television news interview in at least four years. The unplanned appearance, with Bibi walking in and getting mic’ed up live, was due to growing allegations of misconduct in another corruption scandal involving multi-billion dollar IDF purchases of German naval vessels (the so-called “submarines affair”). “I’m here to shatter the wave of lies from [the leadership of Blue and White]...wild smears,” Netanyahu said….

Gantz, along with his running mates Yair Lapid, Moshe “Bogie” Yaalon, and Gabi Ashkenazi, have for the past week hammered the premier for his alleged stock holdings in a company with business ties to the German shipbuilder, as well as his approval of the sale of German submarines to Egypt — a move his rivals claim undermine Israel’s qualitative strategic edge at sea. New information has come to light indicating Netanyahu may have made over $4 million by selling his shares in a firm owned by his cousin around the time the German purchase was approved (it’s alleged the cousin’s firm stood to profit from the deal)….

Some in Blue and White have insinuated that the graft case, if proved, may constitute “treason” for severely undermining state security. Netanyahu on Friday issued a Facebook video in which he promised to sue Gantz and Yaalon for slander, and repeated the threat in last night’s interview as well, calling the accusations a “blood libel.” Lapid has said he’s willing to wave his parliamentary immunity, welcoming the PM’s lawsuit, which Bibi said was coming….

Netanyahu put up a spirited defense of his past business dealings, and yet (complicated) facts aside, he didn’t quite dispel the whiff of a major conflict of interest surrounding the case. More severely, the PM admitted that he hadn’t consulted with the IDF chief of staff nor his defense minister prior to okaying Germany’s sale of submarines to Egypt. “In the State of Israel there are secrets that only the prime minister knows...and that other people in the security establishment don’t know or don’t need to know,” he said by way of explanation….

Almost half of the thirty-five minute interview was taken up by the above topic. In other matters, though, Bibi called out Gantz on the hack of his cellphone (allegedly by Iran) and urged him to come clean with the public about what might leak out; wouldn’t quite commit to not passing legislation in the next Knesset shielding him from prosecution; and said his next government (if he wins) would be a duplicate of the existing one, leaving no room for Blue and White….

Bibi Leverages Trump’s Golan Recognition: Trump’s recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights three days ago has already receded somewhat into the background — primarily due to coverage of the “submarines affair” — yet it’ll likely resurface (no pun intended) this coming week as the focus shifts to Washington and international diplomacy….

In two video clips he released Friday, Netanyahu gave a sneak peak of how he’ll seek to leverage this American “gift” (and possibly others to come) in his campaign. With dramatic music playing in the background, the first clip spotlighted Bibi and visiting Secretary of State Mike Pompeo after the Trump announcement. Netanyahu called it a “Purim miracle,” adding there had never been a better friend in Israel’s history than President Trump….

The second clip took viewers through an intimate play-by-play of the “historic moment” inside Netanyahu’s official residence, with Bibi adding this time that Trump was a “true friend of Israel and a personal friend of mine.” Continuing on the tour, the PM pointed to the guest book and various flags in the foyer, telling the camera they had to keep replacing both at historic rates due to the sheer volume of world leaders who came to visit during his tenure….

Likud TV In Hot Water Again: The other major (non-Golan and non-submarines) story over the weekend was an ill-conceived parody on Likud TV — the Facebook-based online propaganda arm for the campaign — making fun of prominent journalist Amnon Abramovich’s physical looks. Abramovich was severely hurt (including serious burns) during the Yom Kippur War when his tank was struck by an Egyptian missile; despite his injuries he kept fighting valiantly and was later awarded the IDF’s highest honor….

Likud TV thought it would be a good idea to bring on a comedian, heavily doctored with makeup, to “play” Abramovich. “How do I look?” the fake Abramovich asks. “You look like a missile, Amnon,” the host responds, Hebrew slang for “great.” Condemnations rained down on the Likud for the mocking of a war hero. Netanyahu, for his part, claimed he wasn’t aware of the bit, calling it “stupid” and ordering the clip be taken down. One Likud MK — Avi Dichter — publicly apologized, yesterday tweeting out “Sorry, Amnon.” In an election already known for breaking the bounds of good taste (including previously by Likud TV) some observers called this latest incident a new low….

The Week Ahead: In addition to the happenings in Washington, the Central Elections Committee back in Israel still has to decide this week on whether to allow the Kahanist Jewish Power candidate to move up on the joint list of far-right parties. The Supreme Court last week disqualified Jewish Power leader Michael Ben Ari, leaving his running-mate Itamar Ben Gvir (originally eighth, and now seventh, on the Union of Right Wing Parties slate) as the party’s sole remaining realistic candidate to enter the Knesset. With the URWP polling between six to seven seats, Ben Gvir is looking to secure Ben Ari’s vacated fifth spot….

Friday will mark the one year anniversary to the start of the Gaza “Great March of Return” border clashes. Amid increasing tensions inside Gaza and southern Israel in recent weeks, the IDF expects Hamas to mobilize possibly tens of thousands of Gazans to take part — although the exact number will go a long way in showing just how much popular support the marches, and Hamas, still retain.