Analysis

Netanyahu, Master Manipulator, Has Lost His Touch and Is Now at the Mercy of Facebook

Netanyahu failed to anticipate the backlash on social media and took his base for granted. Once he realized his mistake, the asylum seeker agreement was DOA

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, and Interior Minister Arye Dery ahead of their press conference announcing a deal with the UN refugee agency, Jerusalem, April 2, 2018.
MENAHEM KAHANA/AFP

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has known for weeks that his “third country” plan for deporting Eritrean and Sudanese asylum seekers back to an uncertain future in Africa had fallen through.

The leaders of Rwanda and Uganda initially agreed to accept tens of thousands of them, in return for thousands of dollars a head. But the adverse publicity caused by the deportation campaign in Israel forced them to pull out of the deal. Yet Netanyahu kept on promising the right wing that the deportations would soon be underway, even while his national security adviser, Meir Ben-Shabbat, was quietly negotiating with the UN refugee agency to accept a larger number of African asylum seekers into its quota system for resettlement in Western countries.

The number that was finally reached, 16,250, was the best deal Israel could have accepted – especially since the UN agency could have insisted that a country of Israel’s economic prosperity should be well-equipped to absorb the refugees itself.

It was a useful number, though, because it allowed Netanyahu to pretend at Monday afternoon’s press conference that for every migrant Israel allows to stay, another would leave. This wasn’t entirely accurate, since the number of African asylum seekers in Israel is around 37,000. But it was as hard as Netanyahu was prepared to work to try and make the agreement palatable to his base.

That was his biggest mistake: Taking the base for granted and expecting them to unquestionably swallow his sudden change of course. Nothing was done to prepare the ground – not even to inform members of the government. For once, Netanyahu totally misread his constituency.

His ministers didn’t, though. All but Interior Minister Arye Dery, who was involved in the negotiations with the UN agency, were surprised by Monday’s announcement. Less than two months previously, they had voted to approve the deportation plan and had all supported it publicly. Now they refused to fall in line and back the new plan.

Why should they support him? Their voters want to get rid of all the migrants. The ministers know full well that this is impossible, and that the new agreement is the best Israel can hope for. It will almost certainly be the solution that is ultimately chosen – assuming the UN agency agrees to return to it. But if Netanyahu, who is going down anyway, can be made to take the blame, so much the better.

With the exception of the sycophantic Communications Minister Ayoub Kara, who will praise Netanyahu even if he cedes sovereignty of the Galilee to Hezbollah, the ministers either kept silent or criticized the new plan.

But the ministers are stuck in this government coalition. What was more devastating for Netanyahu was the backlash on Facebook. The right-wingers have been whipped into a frenzy for months in a fraudulent and racist campaign against the “infiltrators,” and now Netanyahu was telling them nearly 20,000 of them would be allowed to stay. They were promised deportations and would accept nothing less.

The online vitriol from his supporters was unprecedented – and all Netanyahu cares about nowadays is his support on Facebook.

Even his most reliable cheerleaders, like Channel 20’s Shimon Riklin, were accusing him of breaking promises and collaborating with the hated UN. Less than seven hours after Monday afternoon’s press conference, Netanyahu announced that the agreement with the UN agency was “suspended,” while its cancellation came within 20 hours.

The prime minister is losing his touch. If he had been less isolated by the ongoing police investigations, and if he hadn’t lost nearly all his experienced advisers with some feeling for the public mood, he wouldn’t have needed the Facebook backlash to tell him that awarding even temporary status to thousands of migrants would be deeply unpopular.

He would have first acknowledged that the “third country” agreement had fallen through – blaming the left wing, the High Court of Justice and the New Israel Fund. Only then, after a proper interval, would he have presented the agreement with the UN refugee agency, and would probably have succeeded in marketing it as an achievement.

But this is no longer the master manipulator of coalitions and right-wing voters. This is a Netanyahu besieged by police investigators, his own cabinet ministers and his own fickle supporters on Facebook. His team of aides now consists mainly of social media warriors recruited by his son, Yair. They can craft memes for him, but they have no solutions to prevent his panic when they tell him what’s being said about him on Facebook.

His coalition partners are in no hurry to bring him down. They have so much power now serving under a weak prime minister that they’ll let the attorney general do the work. Meanwhile, they are burnishing their right-wing credentials in preparation for the next elections, whenever they come.

Only three weeks ago, Netanyahu tried to engineer the dissolution of the Knesset and early elections while Likud was riding high in the polls. His coalition partners stymied that move and have once again put him in his place now.

His standing among the right-wing base has taken a hit, which could well show up in the polls – rendering early elections even less likely. Netanyahu must hang on in office, waiting for the attorney general’s decision on whether to indict him. That’s the last showdown he’s preparing for.

Every pound of red meat he can throw to the base will be flung out over the next few months. Antipathy toward the courts, the media and the left will be stoked to fever pitch, to ensure that on the day he’s indicted, his diehard supporters are there on Facebook to insist that an elected leader not be brought down by the “deep state.”

But it is a losing strategy. Netanyahu is now at the mercy of others, dying a long drawn-out political death by a thousand cuts.