Analysis

A Faux Pas in Kiryat Shmona Casts Netanyahu as The Trumpitator

The prime minister’s surprising public scorn for a Likud heckler roiled party stalwarts and provided a classic Israeli 'if it had been Obama' moment

File photo: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the U.S. Embassy's Independence Day celebrations.
Ilan Assayag

The popular social media meme that once greeted every outrageous statement or decision made by Donald Trump – “If it had been Obama, Republicans would storm the White House/seize Capitol Hill/ secede from the Union/etc.”  – is gradually turning into a hackneyed cliché.  Not because the American right has become any less hypocritical – on the contrary – but because the rhetorical trick has been overused and is no longer amusing.

Its Israeli parallel, however, was right on the money on Tuesday, as far as Benjamin Netanyahu is concerned.  If a prime minister from Labor, or any random leftist in fact, had responded to a vocal interruption from a female Likud supporter in the northern town of Kiryat Shmona with the withering retort, “You’re boring. You don’t interest us,” as Netanyahu did, the Israeli right wing would be burning the house down right now, with Netanyahu supplying the gasoline.

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You have to know some of the background to appreciate the full irony of the situation. Netanyahu’s heckler, Orna Peretz, a self-proclaimed Bibi supporter, interrupted his speech at a ceremony marking the inauguration of a new private medical center by asking why the government had closed down the old public emergency room that provided medical help to residents of Israel’s far north. If a leftist politician had responded with the blatant scorn shown by Netanyahu, Likud and the right would immediately tout it as irrevocable proof the left’s elitism, racism, and deliberate neglect of the development towns in Israel’s periphery, in which North African Jews, who overwhelmingly vote Likud, are the clear majority.

Likud would not hesitate to pour salt on historic wounds by alluding to the condescending and discriminatory attitude of the then-ruling, Ashkenazi-dominated Labor movement towards Sephardim in general and North African Jews in particular. They would do so eagerly, without batting an eyelid, unperturbed by their self-evident rank hypocrisy. They would be unfazed by the fact that Avi Gabbay, a son of immigrants from Morocco, leads Labor today and that he is the third leader of Sephardic origin elected by the party.  They would ignore the fact that Likud, which has a virtual lock on North African voters, has never had a leader who wasn’t pure Ashkenazi. In fact, only two of the party’s 12 ministers in Netanyahu’s cabinet hail from North Africa, and they also happen to be women. One wonders if Netanyahu hadn’t figured out that in terms of politically correct representation, this is how you kill two birds with one stone.

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One must also take into account that in the annals of Israeli politics in general, and of Likud in particular, Kiryat Shmona stands out among the 24 development towns, far-flung by Israel’s miniscule standards, to which Labor’s predecessor Mapai sent new North African arrivals in the early 1950s. Likudniks have a special place in their hearts for Kiryat Shmona. They believe that the town, dubbed “the capital of the Upper Galilee,” is their lucky charm.

In the 1984 elections, Likud screened a five-minute political ad in which a precocious 12-year-old redheaded girl named Lisa spoke about the terror of living under constant bombardment by katyusha rockets. Menachem Begin, the ad asserted, had stopped the rocket attacks and saved Kiryat Shmona by launching the 1982 Lebanon War. Many Likudniks believe that the girl’s powerful impromptu testimony, at a time when the Lebanon imbroglio was growing increasingly unpopular, helped to paint Likud as the staunch defender of Israel’s security and Labor, despite its gallery of former generals, as appeasers and defeatists.

In Likud mythology, the ad was the catalyst that spurred the party to crawl back from certain defeat to parity with Labor in 1984. And the formula of portraying Likud as unflinching in the face of Israel’s enemies and depicting Labor as serial capitulators who will never break the habit has proven its political effectiveness ever since.

Finally, one can’t leave out the part in which it was actually the Likud directors of the legendary campaign ad who decided to give Lisa a new family name, Peretz, which, by sheer coincidence, is the same as Netanyahu’s heckler. They preferred that she be identified with the popular Moroccan family name of her mother Shoshana’s second husband rather than Kotzoianis, the foreign-sounding Greek name of her actual father. So even though her father was Greek and her mother was born in New Jersey with the quintessentially Ashkenazi name Susan Schwarzkopf, Lisa Peretz was embedded in Israeli memory as a representative of Israel’s downtrodden minorities.

And, in a final piece of sweet irony, the same Lisa Peretz, who decided to stick with the adopted name that made her famous, eventually left Kiryat Shmona, moved to Tel Aviv, became a successful journalist and for the past ten years has been the editor of Galeria, the widely respected culture and entertainment section of – wait for it – Haaretz. The girl who was an icon of the right is now a stalwart of the newspaper they detest above all others.

In any case, Likudniks were horrified by the video of Netanyahu’s sneering response to Peretz, which was broadcast over and over on Israeli television stations before being shelved to make room for reports on the escalating Gaza conflict. They were concerned that history might repeat itself to make Kiryat Shmona pivotal once again, only this time to their own detriment. They were no less perplexed by Netanyahu’s uncharacteristic, even if only fleeting, loss of self-control.

Realizing the damage potential of the faux pas in Kiryat Shmona, the Prime Minister’s Office initially reacted with the misleading assertion that Netanyahu’s unusual public display of impatience stemmed from the fact that Peretz had interrupted his eulogy for his close friend and advocate, Jacob Weinroth, who had passed away that same morning. They obfuscated the fact that Netanyahu had actually responded with restraint to Peretz’s heckling during his eulogy. It was only when she interrupted him for the second time, when Netanyahu had moved on from the eulogy to praise his government’s unique achievements in Kiryat Shmona, that he let loose with the “you’re boring” putdown.

Some analysts opined that the prime minister’s unusual outburst indicated that underneath his self-confident facade, Netanyahu is actually worried sick about his police investigations, which he insists will come to nothing, and/or about the upcoming elections, which he just as assuredly asserts will end in another clear-cut Likud victory. Another explanation is that Netanyahu is simply internalizing and imitating the behavior of the U.S. president who he continues to praise as Israel’s best friend ever. Insulting critics, under any and all circumstances, is a staple Trump reaction, from a disabled journalist to Maxine Waters and Elizabeth Warren.

The Trumpian theme was clearly evident in Netanyahu’s speech the night before, at the opening of the Knesset’s new winter session. Netanyahu’s address was comprised of two main parts: In the first, Netanyahu praised his own stellar and unparalleled achievements over the last decade, ignoring anything and everything, including Gaza, that might undermine his boastful narrative. In the second part, he berated his critics in the media and in the opposition, dubbing them “sourpusses” who refuse to accept his leadership and who defame Israel abroad. Netanyahu spoke with the same rhetorical flourish and command with which he is identified, but his message was Trumpish through and through.

Which could explain why he has so far refused to accede to pleas by distressed Likudniks to apologize to Orna Peretz so that she does not turn into a leftist rallying cry that could compete with the one created by Lisa Peretz 34 years ago. Trump, in principle, never apologizes, unless his back is against the wall, so why should Netanyahu? He is, after all, the president’s number one groupie, and imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. Perhaps he should be known, Arnold Shwarzenegger style, as the Trumpitator.