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Israel election: Gantz regains lead over Netanyahu despite Iran hacking scandal

Former Israeli chief of staff Benny Gantz delivers his first electoral speech in the Israeli coastal city of Tel Aviv on 29 January, 2019 [THOMAS COEX/AFP/Getty Images]
Former Israeli chief of staff Benny Gantz delivers his first electoral speech in the Israeli coastal city of Tel Aviv on 29 January, 2019 [THOMAS COEX/AFP/Getty Images]

Leader of the Blue and White (Kahol Lavan) alliance Benny Gantz has regained his lead over incumbent Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the latest election poll, the first to be conducted since the country’s Iran hacking scandal.

Two polls were released yesterday by Israel’s major TV stations, Channel 12 News and Channel 13. The Channel 12 News poll predicted that Blue and White would win 32 seats in the 120-seat Knesset, while Netanyahu’s Likud party would win only 27.

The Channel 13 meanwhile put Blue and White at 31 seats, with the Likud party on 29, Haaretz reported. The same poll also asked voters who they preferred to be prime minister after the general election on 9 April, to which 38 per cent said they preferred Netanyahu while 36 per cent would prefer Gantz.

However, despite the increase in support for Blue and White – an alliance of Gantz’s Israel Resilience (Hosen L’Yisrael) party and Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid party – the polls still suggest that overall the right-wing bloc will receive more seats than a centre-left bloc. This means that, if things remain as they are, Netanyahu will likely receive the most endorsements from party leaders when they each make their recommendation to Israeli President Reuven Rivlin as to who should form a government after 9 April.

READ: Likud tops poll for first time since formation of rival ‘Blue and White’ list

Yesterday’s polls are the first to be conducted since the Iran hacking affair, a scandal fraught with accusations and contradictions which many thought could derail Gantz’s election campaign.

Last week Channel 12 News journalist Amit Segal claimed that Israel’s security agency, Shin Bet, suspected Iran of hacking Gantz’s mobile phone. Segal reported that two Shin Bet officials had approached Gantz six weeks ago, telling him they believed Iranian state intelligence had accessed his personal information and messages.

The officials reportedly warned Gantz that the breach had taken place during his election campaign, meaning it could have occurred any time since he announced his candidacy in December. Subsequent reports have suggested the attack occurred “several months ago”.

Modest Netanyahu – “I am ready to leave my position tomorrow as prime minister, but I have no one to leave the keys with” – Cartoon [Sabaaneh/MiddleEastMonitor]

In a statement, Blue and White said: “It should be emphasised that the incident in question happened some four years after Gantz finished his term as chief of staff [of the Israeli army].” Gantz served as Chief of Staff between February 2011 and February 2015, meaning the attack likely happened in the first few months of 2019.

Contradictions over the timing of the incident represented only the first anomaly in what has since become a nationwide scandal. Initially, Gantz dismissed claims of the hacking as “political gossip”. Speaking to reporters near the Gaza border fence on Friday, Gantz argued that “we’re in the middle of an ongoing security event […] and someone’s putting out a political gossip story. I do not think Benny Gantz is the story here. There’s no security issue there. No threat and no blackmail”.

The story, however, refused to go away, forcing Gantz to concede that he was made aware of the hack by Israel’s security services. He was also forced to deny that there was any compromising information on his phone, after reports claimed it contained everything from national security information to sex tapes.

Netanyahu was quick to use the affair to his advantage, claiming Gantz is now vulnerable to blackmail and extortion by Iran and that he is, therefore, unfit to be prime minister. Netanyahu has demanded that Gantz reveal what information was hacked from his phone, saying: “How can you as a prime minister confront Iran, our number one enemy, when it has sensitive content about you? It’s not gossip, it’s a matter of national security.” Netanyahu continued:

Gantz, what are you hiding from the Israeli public? What do the Iranians know about you? What material do they have? Why didn’t you inform your party partners about the matters on which the Shin Bet updated you? What do you have to hide from them?

Netanyahu also went as far as to say that Gantz was Iran’s preferred candidate in the upcoming election. In an election advert which aired on Saturday, Netanyahu’s Likud party claimed that “the Iranian regime openly supports” Gantz, pointing to his support of the Iran nuclear deal in 2015.

READ: Gantz labels Israel-Arab parties ‘irrelevant’ ahead of election

Netanyahu’s near-elation at the scandal has led many to question whether his office had a hand in leaking news of the hack to the media. Blue and White has called for Israel’s Attorney General, Avichai Mandelblit, to investigate the leak, arguing “the information could only have come from intelligence agencies or the civilian National Cyber Directorate, all of which are under the Prime Minister’s Office”.

The official appeal to the Attorney General read: “Given that the ‘hack’ reportedly took place a long time ago, and given that it’s inconceivable that a source in the security services would leak details about an alleged ‘Iranian hack,’ and noting the timing of the ‘leak’ – it was clearly done by someone who has access to sensitive defence information and possesses an interest in harming Gantz.”

The letter accused Netanyahu of orchestrating the leak in an act that constitutes “the most severe breach of trust,” charging that “there is a series of indications that trace a path for the ‘leak’ to a very specific office in Jerusalem”. It, therefore, called on Mandelblit to initiate “a swift, comprehensive and determined inquiry to discover the source of the ‘leak’.”

#IsraElex19: Israeli Elections 2019

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In the latest twist in the saga, Iran has also responded to the allegations, yesterday denying any responsibility for the hack. A spokesman for Iran’s Foreign Ministry, Bahram Qasimi, told official Iranian news agency IRNA that “these irrelevant claims [aim] to create a hostile atmosphere against Iran” and that “the [Israeli] regime’s officials are long used to spreading lies”. “They use their propaganda tools to link any event in the world to Iran,” Qasimi claimed, slamming the whole affair as part of a “psychological war” aimed at stoking anti-Iran sentiment in Israel.

That yesterday’s polls show that Gantz appears to have weathered the storm will be seen as a blow to Netanyahu, irrespective of whether or not he and his party had any hand in leaking the news to the media. The affair put pressure on Gantz and, according to commentators, was not handled well by the Blue and White team. How the alliance will proceed from here will be crucial, as with only three weeks to the election Netanyahu will likely continue his attacks on Gantz in a bid to secure his re-election.

READ: Ya’alon, Blue and White list ‘moves aside’ Palestinian issue

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