Netanyahu Was the Only One to Realize: The Worse It Gets, the Better

Ever the seasoned campaigner, Netanyahu correctly grasped that the more desperate his electoral situation looked, the easier it would be for him to open the tribal floodgates – and be rewarded with a fourth term.

Yossi Verter
Yossi Verter
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Illustration by Amos Biderman.
Illustration by Amos Biderman.
Yossi Verter
Yossi Verter

Ten days before the election, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu received the results of an internal Likud poll indicating that 58 percent of the respondents thought he would be the person to whom President Reuven Rivlin would give the task of forming the next government. That represented an 8 percent decrease from the results of a previous poll.

Any reasonable person would have taken this as a warning sign, cause for alarm. Netanyahu wasn’t pleased. “Not good, not good,” he said. “We have to knock it down more, to below 50 percent.”

That marginal anecdote encapsulates in its way the story of Likud’s election campaign. It shows that the person who will soon become prime minister for the fourth time understands the mentality of his voters better than anyone else. A sophisticated, experienced campaigner, he’s in a league of his own.

What we lay people would have interpreted as “another indication of Netanyahu’s weakness,” was taken very differently by the professional eyes of the person who was the focal point of the election: He grasped that the worse, the more desperate and more terminal his electoral situation looked, the easier it would be for him to open the nationalist and tribal floodgates that would bring his disappointed voters back home to Likud, and would persuade the religious-Zionist constituency to betray their party and defect to him. Not to save him – to save themselves. He’s only here to serve. He’s an emissary. An instrument.

Professionally, he played it cool, on the basis of Lenin’s well-known remark, “The worse, the better.” Everything was aimed at the final stretch. The “bad news” peaked just before last weekend, when most of the polls showed Zionist Union with a four-seat advantage over Likud. The commentators predicted that Likud might dip below 20 seats. Even before that Black Friday, Netanyahu had launched his “gevalt” (Yiddish for, roughly, “the sky is falling”) campaign, when he met with settler leaders and suggested that they start packing their bags.

“They want to oust me, but not because of me – because of you,” he told them in one meeting. “Make no mistake. It’s not my head they’re after – the foreign governments, the American and Mexican billionaires, [former Arab MK] Azmi Bishara in Qatar and the Palestinian Authority. They want your homes, our patrimony.” Netanyahu is an unrivaled master in projecting his distress onto the public, when he needs to.

But it was only on Friday, when the general public got to see the daunting numbers, in huge headlines, that Netanyahu brought out the heavy artillery. He gave a series of feverish, despairing, self-victimizing interviews, in which he warned that Likud was on the way to losing power. He was seen and heard on every news site, whether influential or marginal, on every radio station, whether legal or not, and almost on every television station – other than the one [Channel 10] he intends to shut down.

The more curt and disrespectful the interviewers were with him, and the more rude and patronizing they were, the more intense the bitterness and the solidarity and the tribalism became in “Likud’s bastions,” primarily in the geographical periphery of the country.

The religious-Zionist public had already made a cold, rational decision to vote Likud. However fond they may be of Naftali Bennett, this isn’t the time for games, they thought. Let the leader of Habayit Hayehud wait his turn; he’s still young.

On Tuesday night, when the results started to come in, Bennett’s father called him. He didn’t ask the natural question: “How many seats did you get?” He asked, “Which bloc is ahead?” Those four words are the distilled essence of the religious-Zionist voters. Netanyahu spotted it, Netanyahu understood it, Netanyahu worked for it.

If Zionist Union leader Isaac Herzog had run a better, more vicious and more focused campaign, he might have wrought upon Yair Lapid and Yesh Atid what Netanyahu wrought upon Habayit Hayehudi. Ultimately, that is the great failure of Zionist Union.

Caution, predator on the right

In early December, when Likud’s Knesset candidates were immersed in a cruel primary, the two managers of the party’s election headquarters, Aron Shaviv and Shlomo Filber, called MK Tzipi Hotovely. They wanted to meet with her urgently. Shaviv and Filber, who are both religiously observant (knitted skullcaps), showed her a jaw-dropping poll in which their party was projected to get 18 seats and was still falling, while Habayit Hayehudi, also with 18 seats, was still rising. What should we do, they asked.

Hotovely, who grew up in the religious-Zionist community, where she has “princess” status, said Netanyahu would have to penetrate the heart of darkness himself, visit the settlements, the pre-army preparation programs. In short, he would have to veer to the right shamelessly. It was clear to her that without “pounding” Habayit Hayehudi, Likud didn’t stand a chance.

At the moment of truth, she noted, the voters would realize that this time, casting their ballot for Bennett was a luxury. They would internalize the notion that without a strong Likud, there was a clear and present danger of a left-wing government being established.

Filber disputed this. “They’re a lost cause,” he said. “For them, Bennett is the next prime minister.”

Hotovely insisted. The ideological right are responsible people, she told him. They always vote, the only question is for whom. We will have to explain the situation to them in all its grimness, but with a hug.

After Hotovely concluded her bitter struggle against former Shin Bet chief Avi Dichter for the 20th spot on Likud’s ticket, Netanyahu put her in charge of the settlement desk in election headquarters. She cut a wide swath in the settlements. Netanyahu followed all her recommendations; he went where it was necessary to go and promised that not one settlement would be evacuated while he was prime minister. And with him everywhere was an entourage of leading figures from Likud’s ideological right wing: Benny Begin, Yuli Edelstein, Zeev Elkin, Yariv Levin and, of course, Hotovely herself.

The result: a surge in the proportion of Likud voters in the settlements.

Of course, mistakes by Bennett also contributed mightily to his party’s decline. There was the homophobic clip uploaded by some of his party’s candidates, which looked as though it had been shot in Iran.

Bennett also deterred many secular voters who had seriously considered casting their ballot for his religious party. And the icing on the cake was the episode of soccer idol Eli Ohana, which caused havoc among voters of Mizrahi background (Jews from Middle Eastern lands or their descendants), on the one hand, and the traditionally religious observant on the other.

Bennett, it turns out, lost his aura. His magic touch. His weakness, his brittleness, allowed Netanyahu to cut into him savagely.

The would-be contender

After the vote Tuesday, like many others, Isaac Herzog went to bed in his home – in the upscale Tzahala neighborhood in north Tel Aviv – at about 2 A.M., dreaming of a tied vote. He was awakened a few hours later by a text message of condolence from Tzipi Livni. “Ya’allah, what a night,” he said to his wife, Michal. A little later, with battalions of reporters and photographers waiting for him outside, Michal suggested he call Netanyahu to congratulate him, as is the custom, and then face the media.

Herzog called the Prime Minister’s Bureau himself. The secretary told him the prime minister wasn’t available. He was sleeping. Herzog made other calls. Half an hour went by. Outside, people began to wonder why Herzog wasn’t saying anything. Was he busy cooking up a coalition plot with a messenger from Bibi? Maybe even with the boss himself?

Herzog called the head of the Prime Minister’s Bureau, David Sharan. The latter took on himself the sensitive task of waking up the leader. He put him through to Herzog, who told him something along the lines of, “You scored a fine achievement. My congratulations.”

Thank you, thank you, mumbled Netanyahu, who was exhausted and sounded something like a zombie, adding that it had been a hard fight.

Herzog then went out and made a short statement before the cameras. He did not utter the word “opposition.” He did not promise to serve the nation from its ranks. Within a few minutes, former Labor leader Shelly Yacimovich told the media that this was indeed the intention, and related that the word “opposition” had been voiced in a phone conversation she’d had with Herzog an hour earlier.

By the way, throughout the campaign, Herzog was very complimentary about Tzipi Livni and spoke highly of her many virtues. But make no mistake: the real alliance – strong and strategic – exists between Herzog and Yacimovich. In the campaign, Livni accompanied Herzog. But the principal and intimate adviser was Yacimovich.

There’s much one could say about the problems that beset Labor’s campaign. In fact, it’s all been said and written. Zionist Union’s campaign seems to have been conducted in a different, parallel world to that of Likud. Netanyahu and his staff didn’t balk at uttering lies and hurling slanders, in a classic smear campaign.

The Herzog group, led by him, generally behaved fairly and politely, abiding by the rules. But a candidate who suffers from security-image inferiority can’t allow himself to behave like that.

For example, the reason that Herzog refused to rule out unequivocally the possibility that he would hook up with Netanyahu after the election, was because he took into account that such a scenario would occur.

“Maybe in the end I’ll work with him,” he told his advisers, when they urged him to issue a statement along the lines of Netanyahu’s repeated claim that an “ideological abyss” divided the two men and their parties. “I don’t want to look noncredible,” Herzog said.

He also wanted to show respect for the prime minister. Yes, the same prime minister who was ready to drag Herzog, tarred and feathered, through the streets, and then stone him, if necessary.

In private conversations the following day, Herzog admitted that he ran against a far better competitor, who balked at nothing and ruled nothing out. Zionist Union’s 24 seats are a handsome achievement, but small consolation. Another term in the wilderness. It’s not easy for this party, which is aching for rule but whose ambition is greater than its reach.

The Labor Party’s constitution allows another contest for leader, up to 14 months after the elections. It will come, and Herzog promises to be there. He’s waiting for a second chance.

Some came running

The five seats that Likud garnered courtesy of Habayit Hayehudi joined three seats from Moshe Kahlon’s Kulanu party in the decisive last three days of the election campaign. Those who came home to Likud from Kahlon were mostly in the 45-60 age range – veteran Likudniks who believed Netanyahu.

At the start of the campaign, they forsook their traditional political home in anger at the leader, who had gone astray, had forgotten the heritage of Menachem Begin, had turned his back on social-welfare issues. But fear of the leftists and the Herzog-Livni threat, which was implanted in them brutally, in a campaign of fabrications, as though they were geese to be fattened, had its effect.

Why did Kahlon not implode like Bennett? Because, parallel to the mass defection, he picked up three new seats from young people, some of them first-time voters, some of them from Likud families but not weighted with the heritage of the past and thus feeling more liberated. Their parents, though, succumbed to their guilt feelings and pangs of conscience.

Netanyahu exploited those feelings in the crudest, most primitive and most primal way. His post on Election Day about the swarms of Arabs being transported to polling stations had a lethal effect. The Tel Aviv café-goers turned up their noses at the racism, the exclusionism, the alienation from a large, legitimate public that wanted to exercise its democratic right. However, in Likud towns and cities, where fear and hatred of Arabs is endemic, his words had the desired effect. Those who intended to vote for Kahlon, or not vote at all, ran to block the 2015-model shahids [martyrs] bodily.

Netanyahu worked like a type of human flamethrower in the election campaign. He unleashed tongues of consuming fire at whatever stood in his way to victory. He devastated his relations with the White House over Iran. He infuriated the Americans and Europeans by demonstratively dissociating himself from the two-state idea. And he turned most of the media into his official enemy, into a political arm, as though he were President Vladimir Putin from the Kremlin.

The racist, debased Facebook video post about the Arabs reminded a senior Likud figure of the 2003 election campaign. Every day, the strategist Reuven Adler, who managed Ariel Sharon’s campaign, inserted into the party’s television and radio ads a tape of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat screaming in a demonstration, “A million shahids are marching to Jerusalem!” In Arabic, of course. What Netanyahu did on Tuesday was his own, successful take on that shtick.

Early on in the campaign, Netanyahu realized he had few cards to play. The socioeconomic issue was strewn with deadly explosives, and the state comptroller’s reports, the stories of waste at the prime minister’s residence, the talk about his character – these were hardly the stuff of which campaigns are made. There was only one bit of merchandise left to sell: used, worn, tiresomely familiar, but one that would always have buyers – a scare campaign. Fear of the “leftists,” fear of the Arabs.

The left is the demon. The left is the monster in the closet. The left is the embodiment of all fears. Netanyahu is capable of selling off everything, and in the same breath take the stage, grab the megaphone and hurl abuse at the traitorous left. And people will believe him.

In the 1999 elections, after Netanyahu returned from the Wye Plantation, where he signed off on readiness to give the Palestinians 13 percent of the West Bank (and regretted it a minute later), the slogan of his failed election campaign claimed that Ehud Barak would hand over territory but Netanyahu would not. It was totally off the wall, unrelated to any known reality. And it didn’t work, because Netanyahu’s rival, a tough general, had plenty of Arab scalps on his belt and one victorious airliner wing [when he helped retake a hijacked Sabena plane, in 1972].

In the 2015 election, it was Herzog, a north Tel Aviv geek, and by his side the woman who, for the right, personifies more than anyone else readiness to give in to the Palestinians.

If former IDF Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi hadn’t become entangled in the dumb and unnecessary Harpaz document affair, he probably would have headed the Labor Party and would now be waiting for the nod from the president to form a government.

Already in the army, Ashkenazi – a general, Mizrahi and a tough honcho who bears no relation to the “white tribe” [well-to-do Ashkenazim] – was a natural politician. He would have come to kill. He would have trampled Netanyahu. There was no way to tar him the way Likud tarred Livni-Herzog. Only he could have been the Yitzhak Rabin of 1992, the Ehud Barak of 1999.

We needn’t envy President Reuven Rivlin. Our president would have preferred to do a Joe Biden: find himself a distant land and fly there next week, leaving the dubious pleasure of giving Netanyahu the nod to the Knesset speaker (the acting president when the situation calls for it).

Rivlin’s declared plan to bring about the formation of a sane unity government under the leadership of Netanyahu and Herzog, which would try to prevent the unavoidable collision between Israel and the international community, went out the window on Wednesday morning, when he, like most Israelis, discovered to his astonishment that the tie between Likud and Zionist Union had evaporated like a mirage.

The son also rises

A substantive change just occurred in the composition of the human backdrop to Netanyahu. In addition to the ever-present expressionless security guards who surround him, he is now being accompanied by his elder son, Yair. On Tuesday morning, he was photographed alongside mom and dad, casting his ballot in Jerusalem. On Wednesday, he stood behind the prime minister at the Western Wall. Only the two of them filled the frame. All was planned carefully; nothing was left to chance.

We’re likely to see young Yair with growing frequency at every appropriate photo op. Take careful note: Phase II of Sara and Bibi’s plan was launched this week, namely the measured presentation to the public of the intended heir. The person whom they believe should one day be the next prime minister of Israel, the local answer to the Bush dynasty in America, with Sara in the role of Barbara, and the person slated to enter the new residence when it’s built.

Daddy Bibi and mommy Sara will have a place in the spacious parents’ wing. True, their original plan was to move from the official residence on Balfour Street to the nearby president’s residence. But Reuven and Nechama Rivlin plan to be there for the next six and a half years or so.

As already reported here, Netanyahu Jr. played a central role in Likud’s election campaign. He ran the young voters’ unit through an emissary, a close friend who was parachuted in to head the unit. All the messages, slogans, video clips, tweets and posts were vetted by Yair Netanyahu. Sources in Likud discovered that the initiative to remove the clip about the peeling plaster and torn carpet in the prime minister’s residence came from him.

His day-to-day influence on his father’s behavior cannot be overstated. Senior Likud figures who spend time in the Prime Minister’s Bureau have been aware for some time that Sara isn’t the only one who’s capable of disconnecting the boss from all the business at hand, even if it’s urgent. Yair, too, can bring the system to a halt.
In this campaign he “contributed a great deal,” his proud father declared in his thank-you speech to activists on Tuesday night. Sara, as everyone knows, was at the center of the campaign – for the most part not very favorably. We needn’t be surprised that both of them are convinced they brought the victory. And Bibi? He happened to be there, as their presenter.

At some point in the middle of this term, we will almost certainly be informed that Yair has started canvassing Likud branches in Jerusalem ahead of running in the next general election. And from there, as everyone knows, the sky’s the limit.

Until then, Netanyahu Sr. has to put together a government. He promised to accomplish the feat in three weeks, half the time granted him under the law. We’ll see whether his potential partners flow with him. The major battle will be for the three senior portfolios.

In theory, Netanyahu could give the defense, foreign and finance ministries to the leaders of three parties that will be in his coalition: Avigdor Lieberman, Bennett and Kahlon. He would thus attach them with superglue to their chairs around the cabinet table for the government’s whole term of office, at least.

However, two senior Likud figures expect Netanyahu to display stamina and not be in a rush to sell everything for his personal comfort. After all, he holds all the cards. In this Knesset, there can be no prime minister but him. Herzog can’t form a government, not even on paper.

“There is no precedent in our political history,” one of the senior figures said, “for the leader of a party with eight or six seats to get one of those portfolios.” Okay, so there’s no precedent. Precedents are made by people. At this moment, only Netanyahu knows how he intends to proceed. Bennett and Lieberman have already signaled their wannabes: Lieberman is demanding defense, Bennett will make do, and very kind of him, with the foreign ministry. His English is excellent. He’s seen the world. The failure of the merger with the extremist Tekuma party, led by Uri Ariel, will probably lead to a quick divorce. Bennett might move slightly to the center. Low-key moderation.

The foreign affairs portfolio could be the launching pad from which Bennett will restart his journey into Likud. He knows he will never become prime minister from Habayit Hayehudi. That one-time story has run its course.

Which brings us to the other set of Diadochi, within Likud. First, Gilad Erdan, the popular minister who filled Gideon Sa’ar’s shoes as first among unequals. He’s also known for being close to the Netanyahus. If the key to appointments in the next government is the intensity and frequency of the defense provided to Bibi and Sara by ranking party figures in the past few difficult months, Erdan’s place at the top level is ensured.

Erdan considers himself a candidate for the second important portfolio after defense – finance or foreign affairs – on the assumption that one or both of them will remain in Likud’s hands. Yisrael Katz intends to give him a fight for the treasury. Silvan Shalom also has his eye on one of the two portfolios, with a clear preference for foreign affairs. People close to Shalom said this week that given Israel’s gloomy international situation, only he, with his experience from his former tenure in the Foreign Ministry (2003-2006) can rebuild the ruins.

And, of course, there’s always loyal Yuval Steinitz, an esteemed favorite of the Netanyahus. Some call him the adopted son, no less. He’d be happy to go back to the treasury, but he too won’t overturn any tables if Netanyahu offers him the Foreign Ministry. He’ll bow his head.

The general view is that Steinitz will be appointed communications minister and be asked to implement the sweetest revenge of all for the prime minister and his wife – shutting down Channel 10 – which Netanyahu described at the beginning of the week as a branch of the apparatus that was determined to oust him from power.

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