JERUSALEM — In the 2009 campaign that returned him to office, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel called for the destruction of Hamas, the militant group that controls Gaza. But post-election, he settled for weakening and containing Hamas.
So it was a bit embarrassing for the prime minister when he had to be whisked off the stage at a campaign event Tuesday night in southern Israel for fear of incoming rocket fire — from Gaza.
By Wednesday, critics and commentators were having a field day, questioning Netanyahu’s sincerity about his latest election-eve vow, to annex the Jordan River valley.
“Netanyahu promised the public a dramatic statement, but the public was ultimately given dramatic footage instead,” Sima Kadmon, a political columnist with the popular Yediot Ahronot newspaper, wrote of video clips from the city of Ashdod that were widely shared on Israeli and Palestinian social media.
“It’s become evident that Hamas is running the best campaign out there against Netanyahu,” she wrote. “Nothing that any opposition leader might say about Netanyahu’s failure in security is going to stick in the public’s mind the way a rocket being intercepted over the prime minister’s head is.”
The military said its warplanes had struck 15 militant targets, including a Hamas tunnel, overnight in Gaza in retaliation for the two rockets that were fired. Three more rockets were launched out of Gaza at lunchtime Wednesday, the military said. No casualties were reported on the Israeli side.
So deep is the distrust of Netanyahu’s showmanship, particularly in the lead-up to hotly contested elections like the current one, with voters returning to the polls Tuesday, that even some of his supporters are doubting his sincerity about the annexation.
Shlomo Zadik, 70, a onetime pioneer in a Jordan Valley settlement, said that Netanyahu had won his vote with the annexation pledge.
“Netanyahu touched last night on an issue that has been important to me for a long time,” the Jerusalem pensioner said. But he then added a caveat: “I will vote for him because of the hope that he will fulfill his vow, but not because I actually think he will.”
Netanyahu is fighting for his political survival, while facing possible charges in three corruption cases. A special hearing with the attorney general has been set for early October.
Less than a week before Tuesday’s ballot, Netanyahu’s Likud party is running neck and neck in the polls with the centrist Blue and White alliance led by Netanyahu’s main rival for the premiership, Benny Gantz, a former military chief of staff.
Addressing the rocket fire from a campaign rally of his own, Gantz said: “Today, we saw how big words translate into zero action. Instead of making empty declarations regarding the Jordan Valley, we intend to safeguard our sovereignty in the south.”
Gabi Ashkenazi, another of the three former military chiefs on the Blue and White slate, was speaking at the same time in Ashkelon, just up the coast from Gaza, but did not leave the stage when the sirens went off.
In a peeved response to some of the more mocking reactions from Blue and White’s camp, Likud issued a statement early Wednesday saying, “The lowest point of the election: Three former chiefs of staff are joking about firing at the Israeli prime minister.”
But voters on the right and the left are taking Netanyahu’s campaign promises with a large pinch of skepticism.
He has pledged in the past to build in a particularly contentious and problematic area of the West Bank known as E1, east of Jerusalem, but has apparently backed down under international pressure. Days before the last election, in April — which ended inconclusively — he vowed to annex all of the Jewish settlements in the West Bank, including the most isolated, in an effort to rally right-wing voters.
That has rightists asking why he has not annexed an inch of West Bank territory over his last decade in office, or 13 years overall.
Many noted that Netanyahu has not even fulfilled a Supreme Court-sanctioned commitment to evacuate the Bedouin hamlet of Khan al-Ahmar. Built without Israeli permits in the West Bank hills between E1 and the Jordan Valley, its fate has been at the center of a Palestinian and international campaign.
Eti Dar, 65, a pension consultant from Mevasseret Zion, a Jerusalem suburb, said she had supported Likud in the past but would now give her vote to Blue and White.
“Last night was all about media spin,” Dar said of the Jordan Valley announcement. “If Netanyahu had really wanted and meant to annex anything, he would have done so 10 years ago, not two days before the elections.”
“He is an actor,” she added, “and it’s time for him to get off the stage.”