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Israeli security chief issues rare warning over potential for Jan. 6-style mob violence ahead of Netanyahu departure

Israeli right-wing protesters hold signs during a rally against the forming of the new government in Tel Aviv on June 3. In Hebrew, the signs read, “The big fraud” and “Don't give your hand to a left-wing government.” (Sebastian Scheiner/AP)
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An earlier version of this article misspelled the name of Shin Bet chief Nadav Argaman. This article has been corrected.

TEL AVIV — The head of Israel's internal security service said that "extremely violent and inciting discourse" targeting the lawmakers who are seeking to end Benjamin Netanyahu's 12-year tenure as prime minister could take a potentially lethal form — a grim echo of the warnings ahead of the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol.

Shin Bet chief Nadav Argaman said Saturday that the spike in vitriol targeting Netanyahu’s opponents online and in public demonstrations “may be interpreted by certain groups or individuals as one that allows for violent and illegal activities that may even, God forbid, become lethal.”

He called on public officials to rein in the groups that have vowed to do “anything possible” to prevent the swearing in of a new power-sharing government that has been spearheaded by centrist politician Yair Lapid.

Netanyahu has said he condemns any incitement and violence, but he said at a meeting with his Likud party on Sunday that “incitement against us is also raging.” He called on lawmakers to vote against the formation of the “fraudulent” alternative government.

“Mr. Netanyahu, don’t leave scorched earth behind you,” Naftali Bennett, the right-wing religious nationalist politician who is poised to unseat him, said Sunday. “We, the entire nation, want to remember the good that you did in your service for the country.”

The new government, in which Bennett is to serve as prime minister for two years before handing the job off to Lapid, is expected to come to a vote in the Knesset this week. It’s composed of eight ideologically divergent political parties, including leftists, centrists, former right-wing Netanyahu allies and, for the first time in Israel’s history, Arab-Islamists.

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“With his brother-in-arms Trump out of power, consumed by incoherent ranting and mumbling in Mar-a-Lago about how the election was stolen from him by Democrats and the media, Netanyahu has one last page to copy from Trump’s playbook:
creating his own ‘January 6,’ ” Alon Pinkas wrote in the left-leaning daily Haaretz. “As a result of incitement and disinformation, judges, prosecutors and now also the leaders of the opposition are receiving extra protection after Netanyahu’s cultlike supporters threatened their lives.”

After the Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol resulted in five deaths and injuries to more than 140 people, Netanyahu said he would leave office if voted out of power. He called the storming of the Capitol by thousands of pro-Trump supporters “disgraceful” and “the stark opposite of the values that Americans and Israelis uphold.” In the following days, Netanyahu removed a picture of him with Donald Trump from his Twitter banner. He continued to boast of policy achievements such as the relocation of the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem that took place during the Trump presidency.

But since Lapid’s “change coalition” announced last week that it was able to achieve a parliamentary majority, Netanyahu has launched a fierce, multifaceted campaign to keep the it from assuming power. He has uploaded social media posts including old videos of Bennett and his partners pledging to never allow Lapid to become prime minister and called on right-wing lawmakers “to oppose this dangerous, left-wing government.”

Netanyahu last week accused Bennett and his partners of committing “the fraud of the century.” After insinuating the new government has made potentially harmful concessions to the Arab-Islamist party Ra’am, lawyers for Likud petitioned Lapid to release all the details of the coalition agreements.

Netanyahu has not specifically condemned the demonstrators outside the homes and offices of Bennett, Lapid and many others. The protesters have issued thinly veiled death threats and hoisted signs carrying slogans and images reminiscent of those seen in the lead-up to the assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1995. Rabin was shot dead by an extremist Jewish settler who said his “leftist” government’s peace agreements with the Palestinians amounted to “treason.”

Netanyahu’s son Yair called for demonstrations outside the home of a lawmaker in Bennett’s Yamina party and posted his private address. On Friday, Twitter, Facebook and Instagram temporarily suspended his accounts.

Likud said the social media response was a “textbook case of political censorship of the right” and urged the chief executives of Twitter and Facebook “to stop this double standard and allow freedom of expression for all.”

American evangelical leader Mike Evans, a Netanyahu supporter, wrote in a letter to Bennett: “You’re a pathetic, bitter little man so obsessed on murdering Netanyahu that you’re willing to damage the State of Israel for your worthless cause.” He said Bennett’s government would lose all support from the U.S. evangelical community.

Hezi Kalo, former head of the Shin Bet’s intelligence branch, said the atmosphere reminded him of the days preceding the Rabin assassination.

“We don’t have to wait for bloodshed,” he said. “We must do everything possible to make sure nobody takes the law into their own hands.”

On Friday, just before the start of the Jewish Sabbath, Netanyahu compared Bennett’s decision to join the coalition to a Torah story featuring “spies — public representatives of the Israelites who defamed the Land of Israel and weakened the people’s spirit only out of concern for their personal jobs.”

“In our generation too, in our times, people who were elected by right-wing voters have to stand up and do the right thing: to form a strong and good right-wing government that will protect the Land of Israel,” he wrote on Facebook.

Lapid received the mandate to attempt to form a ruling government after Netanyahu was unable to do so, despite his Likud party garnering the largest number of votes overall in the March election. It was Israel’s fourth inconclusive election in the past two years.

The new government is seeking support amid the still-unresolved tensions from the recent 11-day conflict between Israel and Hamas last month.

A right-wing Jewish parade is expected to pass through the Damascus Gate of Jerusalem’s Old City on Thursday in a move that many Palestinians see as a provocative assertion of Jewish sovereignty over contested areas of East Jerusalem.

In the nearby area of Sheikh Jarrah, a mostly Palestinian neighborhood where evictions of Palestinian families contributed to the outbreak of the Israel-Hamas conflict, an Al Jazeera journalist, wearing a press flak jacket, was arrested while covering clashes on Saturday, according to the network.

Early Sunday, Israeli police raided the home of prominent Sheikh Jarrah activist Muna al-Kurd, 23, and issued a summons for her brother, Mohammed El-Kurd, who later turned himself in. They were released Sunday evening. A police spokesperson said they were arrested on “suspicion of participating in riots that occurred in East Jerusalem,” charges that the al-Kurd siblings rejected as efforts to silence their activism.

Such crises tend to bolster Netanyahu, as they allow him to position himself as the “responsible adult in the room,” wrote Liraz Margalit, a social psychologist at IDC in Herzliya, in the Israeli daily Maariv.

“The message is very clear,” she wrote. “Netanyahu will not lose without a fight.”

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