Campaigns to Vilify President Rivlin and Breaking the Silence Go Hand in Hand

Netanyahu, Lapid, Bennett and Ya'alon help turn the president into an enemy of the state; the prime minister's dog bumps staggering poverty figures from the headlines.

An illustration showing 'Im Trizu' activists in a pickup truck, waving their fists as they drive up to  President Reuven Rivlin's home.
Amos Biderman

Shortly after the conclusion of the successful meeting with U.S. President Barack Obama at the White House, all the Israeli president’s people congregated in the suite of Reuven and Nechama Rivlin at their hotel in Washington. Spirits ran high. The responses from back home that flooded the advisers’ cellphones were no less than ecstatic. Rivlin then said something that seemed odd under the circumstances: “I suggest that you go into defensive mode. It was too good and so it won’t slip by quietly.” The jubilant people in the room thought he was exaggerating. What could go wrong?

Hardly had the weekend ended when the president’s entourage found itself in the eye of a storm. Someone examining the schedule of the Haaretz-New Israel Fund peace conference in New York, which was about to open with a speech by Rivlin, discovered that a representative of the anti-occupation Breaking the Silence organization was taking part in one of the many panel discussions. That slice of bleeding flesh was thrown to the Israeli media – and the hysteria quickly erupted.

Anyone who didn’t check out the subject carefully but made do with the whining columns of the professional lamenters in the Israeli media who declared fearfully that the end of Zionism was at hand, could have formed the impression that President Rivlin rubbed knees with someone from the organization on the stage and under the table slipped him a note containing the serial numbers of wayward soldiers.

In fact, when the panel discussion in question took place, Rivlin was long since back in his hotel, reading, among other messages, the favorable post uploaded by Amit Deri, the head of one of the reservists’ groups that are opposed to Breaking the Silence, in which he emotionally thanked the president for coming out unreservedly in defense of Israel’s soldiers in his speech at the conference. Nor was Rivlin aware of the incident involving the removal of the Israeli flag from the conference stage, at the request of Saeb Erekat, of the Palestinian Authority, who spoke after him. Regrettably, he was tainted with that episode, too.

One event fueled the next, one snafu nourished another, and with that sour taste in his mouth, Rivlin and his entourage returned to Israel and discovered that it wasn’t the end, only the end of the beginning. The hate campaign at home gained momentum. Politicians stepped in, led by MK Yair Lapid. He pounced on the Breaking the Silence issue with a typical post against the organization he abhors. In the same breath, he declared that the president was “permitted” to speak in the conference. The next day, after hearing about the flag episode, the Yesh Atid leader told his Knesset faction that this reflected the ultimate “loss of national pride.”

In this saga, Lapid worked overtime as one of the leaders of the right-wing incitement against Rivlin, even if unwittingly. His obsession to lash out at every opportunity against “the left,” from which he keeps his distance as if from lepers (at the instruction of his pollster, Mark Mellman), led him to savage Rivlin. On two occasions, Lapid turned Rivlin into a hater of Israel, into someone who had joined forces with the country’s worst enemies.

During the week, Lapid’s hypocrisy set new records. After firing his volleys, he remembered to decry the growing madness in the social networks, the platform of the far-right Channel 20, and the silence of the right wing. Maybe MK Ofer Shelah, the whip of the Yesh Atid Knesset faction and one of the first to defend Rivlin publicly, reminded him that “yesh gvul” – there is a limit. That it was time for Lapid to break his silence, but without adding fuel to the flames for once. Lapid published something condemning the attackers and deploring those who were silent in the face of the assaults on Rivlin, then called the President’s Residence to get a friendly pat on the back.

Lapid did even more; as we know, he’s not only a statesman but an educator and a preacher to boot. On Wednesday morning, he rushed over to Zionist Union leaders MK Isaac Herzog and MK Tzipi Livni, who were chatting at the entrance to the Knesset chamber. “Bougie,” he said, using Herzog’s nickname, “you have to condemn the silence of the coalition” in the face of the campaign against Rivlin. Even before the startled Herzog could reply that he was the first politician who had gone before the cameras to deplore what needed deploring and to defend the president, Livni snapped at Lapid, “Yair, aren’t you ashamed of yourself? You’re the one who started it all!” Lapid shuffled away, rebuked.

I spoke with Livni after her encounter with Lapid and following the roiling debate in the Knesset, which ended with a titanic clash between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the leader of the opposition. Netanyahu demanded that Herzog condemn Breaking the Silence. Herzog didn’t fall into the trap: He demanded that Netanyahu deplore the incitement against Rivlin. Three days late, the premier, halfheartedly, as though under duress, finally deigned to issue a flaccid, limp and general statement in that spirit.

Livni’s analysis of Netanyahu’s sophisticated tactic was spot-on. By demanding that Herzog vilify Breaking the Silence, she said, the prime minister was associating him and the entire opposition with the organization. In Netanyahu’s world, everyone who doesn’t applaud him and recognize his greatness is automatically an enemy of the people, an in-house enemy in this case, which is worst of all. Anyone who dares to recognize the right of any organization to criticize the government is denounced as an enemy of the people.

“It began during the election, when we [Zionist Camp] were represented as people who would give the ISIS free access to Jerusalem.

“The prime minister is the ‘founding father’ of the ugly wave against the president,” Livni said. “This is an attempt to impose one political position by way of intimidation and hatred.” She refused to comment on her exchange with Lapid, but noted that, in a trenchant post she uploaded on Monday, she had lambasted not only those on the right who are badmouthing the president and everyone who thinks differently from them – but also “those among us who think that it will pay them to be silent or to attack the left.”

Guiding hand

The prediction Rivlin made in the Washington hotel came true. When he and his wife get a warm royal welcome at the White House on camera, someone, or two someones, here in the homeland, go berserk. The boisterous Likud WhatsApp groups filled up with hundreds of mudslinging comments against the president, mostly from people who are known to be supporters of Netanyahu – “Bibists,” as they’re known.

They’re the same functionaries who disparage Rivlin’s custom of flying no-frills to Europe. They’re the same folk who won’t miss an opportunity to label someone a leftist, a bleeding heart, an Arab lover. This is the same group that attacks the president with claws bared and accuses him of treachery whenever there’s a report of a crisis in relations between him and the prime minister. No one in the President’s Residence will fall out of his chair if all this turns out to have been orchestrated from above.

The speed with which the events unfolded indeed suggests a guiding hand. Two days after Rivlin spoke at the Haaretz conference in New York, Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon decided to ban representatives of Breaking the Silence from appearing before soldiers. You might think that Ya’alon suddenly became aware of the organization’s existence when one of its members took the podium in New York.

The next day, Education Minister Naftali Bennett announced that representatives of the organization will not be allowed to appear in local schools. Again we have to ask: Why now? And also, whether Ya’alon and Bennett are aware that by linking the sanctions against the group to the event that triggered the affair, they are reinforcing the associative connection in the Israeli collective consciousness between Rivlin and the rebellious organization.

Also noteworthy is the alacrity with which the sickening clip of the Im Tirtzu organization, with its distorted faces, was produced. Is it possible to make such a clip and mount a campaign that fast? The impression is that Breaking the Silence is only an excuse for the serious upswing in the delegitimization campaign against President Rivlin that started immediately after his election. It’s being conducted by politicians, journalists, a mass-circulation newspaper, a minor television channel, and media and strategic consultants some of whom are very well connected to very high places.

What stands out amid all this is the thunderous and grating silence of the prime minister in the face of the public lynching of the president in the name of the right wing whose one-and-only leader Netanyahu considers himself to be. This silence, which was ostensibly broken in Wednesday’s Knesset debate, can only be interpreted as tacit consent and a mischievous wink of the eye at those who are adept at guessing what’s expected of them.

Netanyahu has a longtime, proven method for dealing with his rivals: vilification, vilification and more vilification. He learned it from the father of the method, the American political consultant Arthur Finkelstein, in the 1996 election. For example, about a year before the popular Israel Defense Forces chief of staff, Amnon Lipkin-Shahak, was due to retire, in 1998, polls commissioned by Netanyahu showed that Lipkin-Shahak would pose a serious threat to him if he ran for prime minister. The moment the results of the polls arrived, Netanyahu’s bureau issued a sweeping directive to Likud stalwarts: You must assert and endlessly reiterate that Lipkin-Shahak – a serving chief of staff – is a leftist, leftist, leftist who will sell the country out to the Arabs.

At present, Rivlin is one of the few significant voices posing a challenge to Netanyahu in the domestic and international arenas. The president is sounding a different kind of tune – independent, liberal, moderate, in a word, sane – one that is otherwise so lacking here. Netanyahu can’t stand it. With the old chap Shimon Peres, he could live. Rivlin drives him crazy, and drives Sara even crazier. Netanyahu wants only one dominant and relevant voice to be heard in Israel: his. Anyone who sings in a different key and doesn’t parrot his doctrine is perceived as a scheming enemy.

In addition to that obsession, which is only becoming more acute as the premier’s years in office go by, there’s a nightmare scenario in which, after the next election, Rivlin will perform some twisted acrobatics and assign the candidate of the center-left the task of forming the next government. This issue is occupying Netanyahu day and night – and that’s not an exaggeration. He is now trying to deprive the president of the authority to decide who will form the next government by passing a “governance law,” which will stipulate that the leader of the largest Knesset faction automatically gets the nod to form it.

Alternatively, in the event that this initiative fails, he is working through emissaries and seraphs and angels to tag Rivlin in the eyes of the public as an implant of the left in the President’s Residence, and as someone who will possess personal motivation for denying Netanyahu the mandate to form the next coalition.

The premier doesn’t have to be overly active; it’s enough for him to remain silent, say, in the face of the petition that’s been organized on the Web under the heading, “Rivlin is not my president.” Let’s imagine for a moment what would happen if a similar petition were aimed against Netanyahu – what outcries, wailing and gnashing of teeth we would hear from morning unto evening from him and his spokespeople.

Two weeks ago, Rivlin met with Netanyahu at the President’s Residence in advance of the president’s departure for Washington. It was an encounter that both of them would have been happy to avoid. The prime minister asked the president to deliver various messages to Obama. Rivlin was not enthusiastic about this, to put it mildly. He may be only a president but he’s not a delivery boy. Netanyahu became angry: “I was elected prime minister,” he reminded Rivlin, “and I set policy.”

“Listen, Bibi,” Rivlin said. “It’s true that you are the prime minister – and also foreign minister, communications minister and economy minister. Maybe you want to be president, too? All you have to do is change the law. A small change in the Knesset and you’re all set.”

A dog’s life

We’ve been apprised three times of the existence of a “heritage-oriented” television channel here. The first time was when it was established, in the summer of 2014; the second time was when its officials hired the retired politician Sharon Gal to serve as an anchor, with all that entails; and this week we learned again that such a channel exists, when it issued a manifesto against the president. Much has been said and written about the channel’s official post, which was couched in gutter language. And also about the transparent connection, which cries out to the heavens, between the denigration of Rivlin and the fawning, kowtowing evening the channel devoted to the family of the communications minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, whom the channel expects will soon issue it a license to broadcast news.

This was a brilliant move by Channel 20, which received a great deal of exposure and will no doubt enjoy a boon in its licensing bid – without any price being paid.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry pets Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's dog at his residence in Jerusalem in November 2015.
U.S. State Department

Another contender for top PR move of the year involved the episode of the Netanyahus’ dog, Kaiya. As she went into quarantine after biting guests at the Prime Minister’s Residence during the lighting of Hanukkah candles, she also afforded the Netanyahus moments of pleasure, despite all the grief involved. Most of all, she helped get the data of the annual “poverty report” out of the headlines. With skill and cleverness, Netanyahu’s bureau fed the dog-loving media items that kept Kaiya in the headlines for three days: a photo with the family on the evening before she was taken from them; a melancholy image of her in quarantine; and a moving post by the prime minister about the bitter fate that awaits dogs that bite people. (He didn’t bother to upload a similar post about the 1.7 million poor people in the country he’s been leading for the past seven years.)

We even got a statement from Sara at a candle-lighting ceremony with Holocaust survivors, to the effect that, “She [Kaiya] was in a fraught physical state and now she is in a fraught mental state.” From a psychologist – which is what Mrs. Netanyahu is – we would have expected a little more tact and sensitivity than to talk about her dog’s distress at an event for Holocaust survivors.

Be that as it may, the day after the publication of the Channel 20 manifesto, the President’s Residence received an email inviting Rivlin to be the main guest on one of its talk shows. The invitation stated politely that the program hosts a public figure every week to discuss a pre-agreed subject based on the weekly Torah reading in a current context.

This is the same Channel 20 that on the day before had asserted that Rivlin “represents himself and not the people of Israel,” “spits in the faces of IDF soldiers,” “has crossed a red line” and is “shaming” the country.

Voices from the past

On the eve of the last Knesset election, Silvan Shalom pondered whether to run for yet another term. The trauma of his run for the presidency, which ended with the first wave of media testimonies alleging sexual harassment by him, was still vivid. He emerged unscathed, but something inside him was extinguished. For the first time, perhaps, he came to terms with the fact that his greatest days were behind him. He would not be prime minister or president, and there was next to no chance that he would return to the Foreign Ministry or the Finance Ministry, portfolios he held between 2001 and 2006. This time around he would get a reasonable deal: interior minister, member of the security cabinet, the post of “responsibility for the diplomatic negotiations,” which is about as relevant to life here as the xenoceratops and the plesiosaur, with one difference: Steven Spielberg makes the occasional movie about them.

With the benefit of hindsight, it’s clear that Shalom should have made his exit from public life at the end of 2014. He would have spared himself this past week. The claims of women who worked with him in recent decades and allege that he harassed them sexually in various degrees of severity are now flooding the media. As of Thursday, the number of accusers stood at six. Some of the stories were already circulating a year and a half ago; others are new cases.

It goes without saying that Shalom is innocent until proved otherwise, just as it goes without saying that the accusations against him were disturbing the first time and are no easier to hear the second time. His denial of the most recent report in Haaretz, on Wednesday, was extremely laconic and general. Now his situation is more complicated, because of the women who have come forward for the first time, because of the details that were revealed from previous accounts that did not result in formal complaints to the police and, of course, because of Yinon Magal.

That promising young MK from Habayit Hayehudi, who was quick to leave politics and drew praise – from this column, too – for drawing the right conclusion and for the punishment he inflicted on himself, acted in the wake of accusations far less serious than those being hurled at Shalom. Magal admitted he’d erred and stumbled, and asked the public's forgiveness but did not receive it. Shalom is denying everything wholesale, but he will find it difficult to explain why young women who were employed in the ministries he headed in different periods are telling such stories about him.

The days ahead will decide the fate of one of Israel’s most veteran politicians. Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein will have to decide, even before he completes his term of office, in two months, whether to order a police investigation of these affairs or to close the case again. Weinstein was reviled on other matters, on a number of occasions in the past year, by Shalom’s wife, Judy Shalom Nir Mozes, on her very active Twitter account. That will certainly not influence his decision.