Netanyahu’s Election Campaign of Fear and Loathing

Many analysts said that Israel's elections were superfluous from the outset, but no one predicted how ugly they would get.

Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev
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Netanyahu's campaign posters.
Netanyahu's campaign posters. Credit: Tomer Appelabaum.
Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev

The term “to burn your bridges” comes from the days of Roman conquests, when generals such as Julius Caesar would burn the bridges and set fire to the boats on which their soldiers traveled, in order to prevent them from contemplating retreat. Without the bridges and boats, of course, it was very difficult to resupply the legions after the battle had been won. Today, if you burn your bridges, you are severing contacts that you might very well need somewhere down the line.

That’s what Benjamin Netanyahu did on the way to his surprise victory over Isaac Herzog on Tuesday.

Netanyahu burned his bridges with the Arab minority with racially tinged Election Day exhortations hitherto reserved for rabble rousers to his right. He set fire to the ships that carry the load of Israel’s ties to the international community, especially the Obama administration, when he suddenly reneged on his agreement in principle to a Palestinian state.

He set fire to the tent in which the half of Israel that didn’t vote for him resides, by depicting them as pawns in some vast and ludicrous conspiracy that involves malevolent anti-Semites, nasty-minded NGOs, cigar-chomping tycoons, greedy Citizen Kane-type publishers and, inexplicably, sly subversives from Scandinavia.

In recent days, Netanyahu even took a page from the GOP’s Southern Strategy, as enunciated in 1970 by Nixon aide Kevin Phillips: “The more Negroes who register as Democrats in the South, the sooner the Negrophobe whites will quit the Democrats and become Republicans.”

That’s what Netanyahu did when he railed against the Arabs voting "in droves" on Tuesday, a statement that turned out to be false but potent nonetheless: Netanyahu’s message of fear and loathing may have indeed been the prod that shook right-wing voters out of their complacency and brought them to the polling booths "in droves."

Netanyahu launched his campaign in December as the self-assured leader of Likud, but is ending it on Israeli right-wing fringes: his rivals will depict him as a Le Pen or Zhirinovsky.

His conduct in the past few days most likely increased prayers in world capitals for a victory by his rival, Isaac Herzog: sources close to the White House found if hard on Tuesday night to disguise their disappointment with the election’s inconclusive results and their distaste for the prospect of having to deal with the “new” Netanyahu, who seems even less palatable than the old. Many of them are hoping that President Reuven Rivlin will take the chestnuts out of the fire by pushing for a national unity government, which they have supported all along.

Netanyahu’s ability to undo some of the damage that he’s wrought in recent days depends on the coalition he sets up.

A narrow right-wing government with Bennett and Lieberman but without Lapid would be viewed as a manifestation of Netanyahu’s lurch to the right: no one in the world will hand him flowers, and no one will harbor much hope.

A national unity government, on the other hand, would quickly revive Netanyahu’s international credentials, though his recent inflammatory statements may have given the sizeable opposition in Labor the upper hand in the internal debate that is expected to erupt should the two parties enter into national unity talks.

Many analysts said that the elections were superfluous from the outset, but no one predicted how ugly they would get. The incessant focus of Netanyahu’s rivals on his personality rather than his policies, together with his own divisive us-or-them campaign, have now split the Israeli public into two hostile and suspicious camps.

One of the first tasks of the new prime minister will be to try and heal the rift, but that could be a problem when half of the country views him as the prime suspect in causing it in the first place.

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