Wild, Inciting, Inflammatory: Netanyahu's Trump-style Rally Was a Preview of Israel's Next Election

As police go after him, Netanyahu goes after left, media, reprising his old, dependable strategy for fending off trouble

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu waves during his Likud Party rally in Tel Aviv, Israel, Wednesday Aug. 9, 2017, held amid growing investigations against him
Oded Balilty/AP

At Tel Aviv's fairgrounds Israel got a preview of the next general election campaign, which may well be closer than ever. The basic ingredients are in the pot – a wild, inciting, inflammatory attack on “the media” and “the left.” All that remains is to light the fire.

That’s what Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is under police investigation for suspected bribery and fraud, did Wednesday before thousands of ardent supporters in a Donald Trump-style event unprecedented in these parts, certainly for a ruling party. The only other party leader to ever orchestrate such a show of support for himself was Arye Dery, two decades ago. We all remember how that ended.

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Netanyahu was careful not to utter a single word against law enforcement. He’s not stupid. But his appearance at this disgraceful spectacle was not just an insult to the intelligence of any normal person, but also a defiant spitting in the face of the police investigators, the state prosecutor and the attorney general. He tried to look relaxed, but he radiated anxiety. He tried to display humor (“I heard that Kaia [the family dog] will be summoned for questioning. Under caution”), but the sweat peeked out from his collar.

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A single crooked line connects the supporters who accompanied “Hebron shooter” Elor Azaria in a victory convoy to prison Wednesday, and those holding the placards at the Tel Aviv Fairgrounds: their deep contempt and burning hatred for the legal establishment, the rule of law, the value of equality before the law and the concept of democracy. It’s no surprise that Netanyahu is the common denominator to both.

The left and the media, “who are the same thing,” in his words, are responsible for his being investigated. Of course. Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit and Police Commissioner Roni Alsheich, both of whom he appointed, along with State Prosecutor Shai Nitzan are all longtime members of the left wing Meretz party [they're not], and all are seeking to overthrow him because their efforts to do so at the polls failed. The incitement against the left and the media heard in the prime minister’s address will quickly soon spill over onto law enforcement and the gatekeepers. No one will be immune to his wrath, his despair, to the loss of wits by a prime minister in distress.

This rally, organized for him by the Knesset coalition whip, Likud MK David Bitan, was aimed at diverting the public’s attention from the investigations, from the embarrassing details that have emerged and that will yet emerge in large doses, and turning that attention to the political arena. Right vs. left is where Netanyahu has and always will have the advantage. In the short term this has no doubt succeeded. In the coming days the public discourse will be conducted solely on the political level, between left and right, between coalition and opposition. The more the attacks against him intensify, the more tightly his supporters will circle the wagons.

Despite all this noise, the police detectives will not abandon their important work, state’s witness Ari Harow will not go back on his agreement to spill the beans about Netanyahu, and the evidence and testimony and recordings will continue to pile up on the desks in the right offices. Wednesday night’s rally might even boomerang. Netanyahu has already been in such a situation; in fact, it was at the same venue, the fairgrounds.

On the eve of the 1999 elections, when he realized the government was about to slip out of his hands, he gathered his supporters and when he was overcome by the pressure, he began to chant, followed by the crowd, “They are a-f-r-a-id! They are a-f-r-a-id!” (“They” being the media and his political opponents, of course.) That spectacle horrified many of his supporters, who on Election Day stayed away from the polls, leaving him with a crushing defeat.

The full column will appear in Friday’s Haaretz.