Analysis

Israel's Elections Will Be the Most Hateful and Divisive Yet

Netanyahu must utilize his entire arsenal of tricks and shticks in this critical battle for his personal destiny: Sowing fear, divisions, lies and exaggerations to a degree we have never seen

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in a press conference announcing early elections, December 24, 2018.
Olivier Fitoussi

During the closed portion of Likud’s Knesset caucus meeting on Monday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gave the following mini-motivational speech, peppered with drama, to his apprehensive party-mates:

“There are no guarantees and we will have to wage a tremendous war. We will face large forces and will have to recruit large numbers of the public. Our test will be to persuade our public to vote for the Likud, and nobody else, to get out and vote. If we do that, we will win.”

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On the surface, the message seems unworthy of any particular emphasis. It’s clear that any party that persuades enough members of the public to go out and vote tends to win. That has always been the main rule of any election campaign.

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But, this “tremendous” war for the hearts and minds of the Israeli public that Netanyahu is preparing for us for, from now through April, carries additional significance between the lines. Any Israeli who paid attention to the last election campaign in 2015 can sense the danger that lies ahead.

We can put it this way: The Election Day smear video that Netanyahu texted out in 2015 - the "Arabs are coming out in droves" video that he later had to apologize to the Arab public for - was only a light appetizer ahead of the banquet awaiting us in the 2019 campaign.

When Netanyahu warns that the Likud will have to wage a “tremendous fight” he is really referring to himself. His political future, his legal situation and perhaps the way he will be remembered in national history all hang in the balance of the next elections.

He must utilize his entire arsenal of tricks and shticks in this critical battle for his personal destiny: Sowing fear, divisions, lies and exaggerations to a degree we have yet to see.

This entire arsenal will be magnified by the millions through the use of his digital platforms. In a rapidly-advancing technological age, political campaigns via Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp are in an entirely different league than the clumsy text messages of yesteryear.

In the post-Trump election digital climate that is inspiring election campaigns the world over, especially those of far-right politicians, the use of bots, fake accounts and emotional manipulation has been honed into a more accurate weapon in the hands of the web's spin artists.

Modern election campaigns are no longer limited to simple television spots on prime time, but are continually played out across our personal news feeds.

This poses an ethical dilemma for the center-left. Should this bloc enter the throbbing, nasty fray as well? And if so, to what extent and where should it draw the line?

As recently elected Meretz leader Tamar Zandberg has seen, left-wing voters are far less forgiving of their politicians than their right-wing counterparts when it comes to electoral purity of arms. On the left, opposing incitement is one of the most important factors.

On the other hand, in the current political climate where the majority of the center-left politicians are attempting to appear as right-leaning as possible, it's uncertain that dovish campaigners will be able to keep their hands clean. There will certainly be some who will say there's no need. In other words: In times of tremendous war, you have to fight like it's a tremendous war.

So it’s a good idea to brace yourself. Judging by the tweets and legislative initiatives of the rather lengthy pre-election campaign period that we’ve experienced, the messages of elections 2019 will be more extremist, divisive and cruel than in the past – and they will move in great numbers across small screens that are now the main vehicles for reaching voters’ minds.