The Dirty Battle Over Agenda in Israel's Elections

The average Israeli had a hard time keeping up with all the allegations and insults lobbed by political parties as this week began.

Yossi Verter
Yossi Verter
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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends a Likud party meeting at the Knesset, Dec. 8, 2014.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends a Likud party meeting at the Knesset, Dec. 8, 2014.Credit: Reuters
Yossi Verter
Yossi Verter

The average citizen exposed to media reports Sunday probably had a hard time distinguishing the Netanyahus’ bottle-buying from their trip-funding, V15 from One Voice, and Daniel Lubetzky from Daniel Abraham. Then there’s that affair when Isaac Herzog chose to remain silent in 1999.

All these stories, mixed up with allegations, insults, spin and half-truths, were thrown around at a speed even our frantic and frenetic media had a hard time keeping up with.

This sticky dough has a name: the battle for the agenda. Elections are won by those who control the conversation, the rules of the game. Right now everything is still up in the air; it’s hard to figure out who’ll end up on top in 44 days, but note the following.

On Sunday, Likud spokesmen launched a multipronged campaign — against the media, Zionist Camp and the nonprofit groups striving to change the government. Negative campaigns have always been Likud’s bread and butter, and if we’re talking about butter, the fat smeared on Knesset members, ministers and a family attorney could keep a fancy French restaurant in business for a year.

For example, Likud dropped the reminder that Herzog, now the head of the Labor Party and Zionist Camp, chose to remain silent when questioned about groups that helped Ehud Barak topple Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in 1999. During those years, Benjamin and Sara Netanyahu were being questioned in two much more serious cases — the removal of gifts from the Prime Minister’s Residence and the acceptance of free services from a contractor.

Even before that, Netanyahu had been questioned in the case in which Roni Bar-On had to resign quickly as attorney general. All those cases were closed, but there were recommendations to prosecute in two of them.

Or take Likud’s attack on NGOs. It’s hard to understand how Likud MKs can call a press conference and with a straight face accuse “foreign elements” of funding groups to bring down their party. After all, outside the hall, pensioners in Israel Hayom’s red overalls were handing out that pro-Bibi free newspaper generously funded by a foreign casino mogul.

Then there are the hysterical threats from Likud election headquarters against anyone who dares quote from the state comptroller’s draft report on Bibi Tours — trips by the Netanyahus and sometimes their sons allegedly at the expense of all kinds of barons and aristocrats. The publication (by Channel 10 journalist Raviv Drucker on his blog) is indeed a violation of the law, but it’s an old and moldy law that has already been violated dozens of times.

Incidentally, Netanyahu is the last guy who can protest leaks. When he was opposition leader in 1995, he exposed a document much more sensitive than a state comptroller’s draft report. He referred to a top-secret document produced by Brig. Gen. Zvi Stauber, a senior intelligence officer, about talks with Syria. When a leak serves him, it’s acceptable.

If there’s anything to be learned from the panic that has seized Netanyahu and his spokesmen, it’s their fear that during an election campaign, disinfecting sunlight will flood the residence on Balfour Street or the patio at the Caesarea villa — not to mention the appointment books that record airline flights and funding.

This talk of buying bottles worth tens of thousands of shekels over only a few months (“It’s not alcohol, it’s wine,” attorney David Shimron remarked) makes Netanyahu look corrupt, hedonistic, greedy and feasting at the public’s expense. That’s a bad place to be in an election campaign, though some will say the people are used to it.

But even after all this, Likud is doing a much better job than Zionist Camp, its main rival. Instead of an opposition going for the jugular, as Barak did in 1999 and Yitzhak Rabin’s people did in 1992 (“Corrupt ones, we’re sick of you”), Zionist Camp is largely on the defensive — its campaign is weak and sluggish.

Netanyahu’s staff is doing much better work online too. The Bibisitter video released over the weekend is great. The people love a leader who can laugh at himself, especially when it’s Netanyahu, who normally seems cold, distant and aloof.

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