Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Central Park in New York. Avi Ohayon, GPO

'Netanyahu Doesn’t Have the Genes of a Thief': How Die-hard Fans See the Israeli Prime Minister

He’s being persecuted, he’s innocent, he's a great leader – four Likud voters explain why they're sticking with Netanyahu



A tip from Benjamin Netanyahu himself is a key factor behind the writing of this article. A couple of weeks ago, the prime minister urged the media to listen to those who support him (and his wife) in spite of – and because of – the array of police investigations and their recommendations to indict him. Around the same time, a number of commentators wrote articles that attempted to understand the Likudnik psyche, which seems to become more loyal to the leader, the deeper the criminal probes into his activity.

The upshot of those analyses was that Netanyahu supporters think from the gut, and react as though the father of the family were under attack. Various sociological and psychological insights were also offered. But hardly anyone asked for the personal opinions of the supporters themselves – who account for the equivalent of 30-plus Knesset seats in their numbers, according to the polls.

I expected to meet enraged people with glazed eyes, mumbling “Bibi.” But I found regular folks, with whom one can agree or disagree. They’re not a monolithic group, of course, but they are unanimous when it comes to believing in Netanyahu’s innocence.

Gil Eliahu

Ronit ‘Bibist’ Levy, 48, insurance agent, from Afula

On the face of it, Ronit Levy seems to be a troll who assails Netanyahu’s opponents and leftists on Twitter with the aid of a sheet of talking points. She works nonstop: When I checked, on a random day, I found that she posted 77 tweets over 24 hours, with a two-hour break, not counting eight hours of sleep. “At first people suspected I was Yair Netanyahu, then Sara, and then Bibi’s lover from the video [referring to an alleged 1993 videotape of Netanyahu cheating on his wife], and also MK David Bitan’s adviser. Next week they’ll claim something else,” she says proudly.

In any case, I can confirm that Levy does exist and is quite affable.

“When I got to Twitter, I saw what looked like a WhatsApp group of leftists,” Levy relates. “I went in and was in shock. For two weeks I just looked and saw that there were hardly any right-wingers – or if there were, they were afraid to speak out. And then I started to react. I realized I was succeeding when it started to irritate people and I was blocked [by some of them].”

Levy knows she is effective, because with each response by her, more right-wing supporters add their voice. She calls them, humorously, “my army,” but quickly corrects herself: “my friends.”

“The problem is that to attack Bibi is to attack the [national] camp,” she says. “Bibi hasn’t been forgiven since he defeated [Shimon] Peres. In the last election, the left had the feeling they were winning, but people who hung out in the periphery knew it wasn’t so. When he won, the left was knocked for a loop. A struggle began, and I get that. What I don’t accept is the persecution. But when the demonstrations started, I said, the more they persecute him, the better. When the recordings of Sara and Yair were publicized, it was ugly and below the belt, but I knew it was only to his benefit.”

Asked whether Netanyahu himself has responded to her, Levy says, “In the 2015 election, I got a thank you from the [prime minister’s] bureau for the help on Facebook. I met him at a meeting of [Likud] central committee members in Afula. He’s a person of great stature. I like to make leftists angry by putting hearts next to his name, but I’m not a dumb groupie. I do it to agitate. I am a fan and an admirer, but I’m not blind. What I like about him is that he’s not ‘boom.’”

Explain.

“Netanyahu acts step by step. For example, he finessed the Oslo Accords in a clever way. He knows how to talk English to them and Hebrew to us.”

And say different things in each language?

“I have no problem with that. To them, let’s say he says that he’s in favor of two states in general. When he talks to us, he explains what two states mean. That security is in Israel’s hands and the Jordan Valley is Israeli.”

In other words, it’s not actually two states.

“Yes.”

And if he’s convicted?

“I don’t believe he will be. Listen to me, he will not be convicted.”

As you see it, did he make any mistakes? For example, maybe he shouldn’t have taken the cigars and the champagne?

“I believe Bibi – everything he’s done for the country. You think he’d sell the country for cigars? Come on! I don’t believe that you believe it.”

Power corrupts. He’s not the first.

“Power corrupts those who are already corrupt. After all, he could earn millions for every speech.”

So could Ehud Olmert.

“Don’t compare Olmert to Bibi. Bibi is revered. We have a person of great stature here. He spoke so perfectly at AIPAC, but people freaked out, and they opened the news broadcasts with nonsense.”

Nir Hefetz as a state witness is not nonsense.

“There’s nothing criminal on the recordings. Why aren’t [Zionist Union’s] Tzipi Livni and treasurer being investigated? Why wasn’t Shimon Batat signed up as a state witness [referring to alleged improprieties in a Labor Party leadership race]? That’s the feeling of the people. A feeling of persecution of the head of the right wing, of an attempted coup.”

The police commissioner, Roni Alsheich, religiously observant and a former settler – is he part of the conspiracy, too?

“This commissioner is a puppet. He’s controlled by forces inside the police. That’s no fantasy. [Reporter] Guy Peleg talked about it on Channel 2. Suddenly the commissioner learned what compliments from the media are, how they are caressing him. I don’t think he understands himself what he’s going through.”

You say that everyone is involved in a conspiracy, while the prime minister is pure. Isn’t it reasonable to think the opposite?

“If there was a normal investigation, without tendentious leaks opening the newscasts, no one would be going wild. [Attorney and former Ehud Barak aide] Eldad Yaniv turned it into left against right. Now the whole camp feels under attack. You and I know there is no ‘golden’ evidence. And forget that I admire the man – look what he’s done for Israel, people don’t want to see that. Now is truly our golden age. In the end they’re left with cigars and champagne. I say, let him smoke cigars and drink champagne, and go on running the country as it should be run.”

Meged Gozani

Hagai Uzan, 40, impresario, from Rishon Letzion

The most interesting conversation I had with Netanyahu supporters was with Hagai Uzan, who represents performing artists – maybe because the period he spent as a journalist (writing about Mizrahi music for the Walla! website) makes it possible for him to observe from the side the backing the prime minister is getting. These days Uzan spends most of his time managing the career of the popular Israeli Arab singer Nasreen Qadri. In fact she – and therefore he – has such a busy schedule that we were unable to find a date for a meeting and had to speak by phone.

It’s hard to categorize Uzan. On one hand, he supports the prime minister, who warned about the Arabs voting “in droves” on the eve of the 2015 election; on the other, he represents an Arab pop star. On one hand, he defines himself as an “Arab Jew”; on the other, he wrote to an Arab resident of Jaffa on Facebook: “We will put you through another Nakba. Yallah, start packing ”

“In regard to Netanyahu, everyone is talking about the cloud of investigations. But there are no more than two and a half of them,” he says. “Case 1000, Case 2000 and maybe 4000. In 3000 he’s not even a suspect. In Case 1000, it’s all kinds of cigars and champagnes. It’s not credible... It’s not logical. He’s always been accused of nonsense, and it always ends in nothing. The bottom line is that the condition of the country is good, people have it good, unemployment is very low, the security situation is calm and the international situation is good, too. Although the whole thing doesn’t even make my balls tingle, the fact is that the transfer of the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem shows that the United States is with us. So, wallah, things are good.”

Uzan abhors the anthropological analyses the media write about Netanyahu’s supporters. “They try to portray us a herd, call us the cult of Netanyahu supporters. First of all, I am a Likudnik, not a Bibist. I voted Labor when Amir Peretz led them. A Likudnik is someone who accepts reality, one who knows that Netanyahu is not perfect. The difference between right and left is that a right-winger knows how to live here, doesn’t believe in the possibility of ‘peace now’ or in a new Middle East, doesn’t believe in utopian dreams and knows that reality is complex, you only have to think about how you come out of all this okay.”

And if the attorney general decides on an indictment in the Bezeq case, will you go on supporting Netanyahu?

“I will be in favor of his moving aside, of declaring incapacity [to fulfill his duties]. And then, if he’s acquitted – great, let him come back. I compare Netanyahu to Mizrahi music. There’s an effort to depict Likud voters as shallow, the same way there’s an effort to depict the audience for Mizrahi music as shallow. They say it’s superficial music, for an audience of baboons – junk that not even the devil created, even though the audience is smart and mature. The patronizing bit only prevents dialogue. The left doesn’t come up with suggestions, only says that Bibi is crap. Although I’ve just seen Avi Buskila, who’s running for the leadership of Meretz, and he looks to me like someone it would be worth sitting with over a cup of coffee.”

The tiny difference in your comparison between Bibi and Mizrahi music is that Netanyahu is an Ashkenazi millionaire who grew up in [the affluent Jerusalem neighborhood of] Rehavia and in the United States. Not exactly Zohar Argov [a legendary Mizrahi singer].

“‘Mizrahi’ and ‘Ashkenazi’ are matters of character. The character of Netanyahu and of the Likudniks is Mizrahi-Levantine. Why do you people think you’re smarter than we are? And if we Likudniks look thickheaded to you, how is it that we have the ability to lead the country and you don’t? The left sees itself as the peace camp, but the right brought about the most important strategic peace.”

Netanyahu doesn’t seem to be working toward peace.

“We’re in favor of peace, too. I believe that the Likudniks would be ready, for example, to leave the Golan Heights if they knew they would get true peace from Syria. If there was a Sadat or a Hussein there. But now the Palestinians are at one another’s throats, so what’s the point of talking about the evacuation of Elon Moreh [an iconic West Bank settlement]?”

Let’s get back to Netanyahu. Didn’t the police recommendations change your mind?

“Is it news to you that our police is made of tin? You know, the police arrest a senior offender every other day and then release him. If there’s anything we’ve learned from this whole mess, it’s that we need to bring in a new police force from the Philippines. We have a joke of a police force.”

How do you think it will all end?

“Nothing. Zip.”

Will you vote Likud in the next election?

“Likud or Orli Levi [head of a new independent party]. I have to see what her slate’s like. But if [Likud’s] Miri Regev is running against Orli, I’ll vote Miri. It’s a dream that she’ll be a candidate for prime minister.”

Avi Gabbay isn’t an option for you?

“I met with him and I was disappointed. Amir Peretz was working class. Gabbay’s a millionaire, he’s not a real-life Mizrahi.”

You mentioned Buskila. Could his election as Meretz leader induce you to vote for them?

“Very, very, very small chance I would. I met with him for a moment and I really liked his cordiality. Listen, the left is beautiful, it’s offering a dream, paradise. Terrific. Left and right is like artist and impresario. The artist wants to sing, the impresario says how. That’s why the left’s pain is also so big. Why does the right look ugly? Because it’s very realistic. Living the blandness of reality while the left is offering world peace, like a beauty queen.”

Meged Gozani

Arie Shnipper, 70, retired importer, from Rishon Letzion

Arie Shnipper arrives at our meeting at the café opposite the Rishon Letzion City Hall wearing a pin of Israel Defense Forces unit 247, in which he served in the 1960s. It was a secret unit stationed in the Mount Scopus enclave in Jerusalem, which was then behind Jordanian lines. Its members, posing as students and librarians, smuggled in arms and prepared for the Six-Day War. He became a supporter of Likud because of the corruption in the country during its early years. His father, who worked for the Solel Boneh construction company (owned by the Histadrut federation of labor), was threatened with dismissal if he didn’t vote for David Ben-Gurion.

“That made me angry as a child, and I decided that when my time came to vote, it would only be against Mapai [forerunner of Labor],” he says. “I hate corruption.”

These days it’s the other side that’s being accused of corruption.

“That’s not new. Netanyahu has been persecuted for more than 20 years. The only reason for that is that he’s smart, and that bothers people. Journalists see him as an enemy. The main thing is to topple him. Even if Iran drops an atomic bomb, it’ll be alright and they’ll support that – as long as Netanyahu doesn’t succeed. I won’t vote anything else. Always Likud. After all, we’re the world’s strongest country economically.”

You seem to be a level-headed person, a law-and-order person. Aren’t the recommendations of the police meaningful to you?

“I will not support anything that’s against the law. But here it’s transparent: There’s persecution, they decided to topple him, come what may. That’s all. I’m sure of one thing, that Netanyahu doesn’t have the genes of a thief. He’s not stupid. In terms of character, Netanyahu is so anxious for Israel’s future, he’s a 100-percent patriot who wouldn’t take a shekel.”

The multiplicity of the cases against him says otherwise.

“When there’s so much, there’s nothing.”

You can’t say that a police commissioner who’s religious and a former settler, whom Netanyahu appointed after promising him that he would serve afterward as the head of the Shin Bet, is plotting to bring him down. That’s not logical. Alsheich is closer to right-wing circles.

“He was. It’s transparent. Now he needs the media, so he cut a deal with the media. His picture is in every newspaper and on every newscast, in a favorable light.”

Isn’t that too much conspiracy, Arie?

“How old are you? Don’t you remember what happened in 1996, when Netanyahu won [his first election]? He was accused of all kinds of capers, he was persecuted and he’s still being persecuted. What’s being done to Netanyahu is contemptible. He has friends, and he likes to give the friends gifts and also to receive them. If Netanyahu had received so many cigars, he’d have to be burning them 24 hours a day. When would he have time to be premier?”

Shnipper writes in favor of Netanyahu mainly on Facebook and responds in his spare time on dozens of news sites. He asserts that he would stick with Netanyahu even if he were convicted. Even though he denies the possibility of that happening, Shnipper says he is already preparing for it mentally, and tells me about a trial that he himself lost, because the judges were bribed.

Even if Netanyahu is convicted, you won’t accept it?

“There’s no chance he’ll be convicted. He wouldn’t steal from the state. The state is so important for him. I don’t want to believe that the state would go that far. Do you know the secret of why those who were once close to him always hate him? Why did [former National Security Council head] Uzi Arad attack him? Because after people finish their appointed jobs and ask Netanyahu to arrange a new job for them, he says no.”

So, if Netanyahu is convicted you won’t believe it?

“No, no way. He’s too smart to be caught. Every decision he made is covered by documentation.”

You remind me a little of the people who say the Lubavitcher Rebbe isn’t dead. It’s messianic thinking.

“You’re right, it does seem messianic. But everyone who’s exposed to the media needs only a day or two to understand that it’s persecution.”

At a certain stage in our conversation, even Shnipper is taken aback by his own accusations, when he grasps that their implication is that the institutions of the country he loves so much are corrupt to the core. So he corrects himself: “Israel is still the best in the world. There are things like this in other countries, too.”

Meged Gozani

Ofra Shay, programmer and actor, from Herzliya

Ofra Shay shows up at our meeting brightly dressed and cheerful. She worked for years in the computer programming unit of Tel Aviv University, holds a host of academic degrees, and is now amusing herself by playing supporting roles in such TV comedies as “The Jews Are Coming.” Shay is not exactly what journalists have in mind when they imagine Netanyahu’s “herd.”

“My whole family is left-wing, totally left-wing. The neighbors are left-wing. The beauty salon is left-wing. They don’t want to hear me. Good thing we have Facebook. There I found people who aren’t pained by what I say, and that’s how I survive. I need that spiritual family. With my husband, we’ve already reached an agreement that we won’t talk about politics, because it deteriorates into bad places. My father, of blessed memory, told me not to marry a leftist, but he turns out to be an excellent husband.”

At the end of the interview, Shay’s (leftist) daughter calls to find out whether she’s said anything embarrassing about Arabs.

Shay voted for Ehud Barak in order to get Israel out of Lebanon, and for Tzipi Livni’s Hatnuah party because she wanted a woman prime minister. In the last election, however, she switched to Likud at the last minute. “People talked about Netanyahu in such an ugly way. I see him as a person, and here we have a manhunt. Write in bold letters: ‘manhunt.’”

Why do you support Netanyahu at a time when there are so many investigations against him?

“Because I love the people and this place, and Netanyahu represents me in the best way possible. I was born here, my mother was born here, I have no other place to go in the world. I want to keep Israel as it is, as a place of economic prosperity, open. I haven’t seen anything in the investigations to incriminate him.”

Not even in the Bezeq case?

“When the investigation began, the Securities Authority was quiet, it went fine, and suddenly there are leaks all the time. An investigation demands quiet.”

Are the police making up all the allegations?

“If you look, you can find things about everyone. There is no person with whom everything is 100 percent. And when you think you have found someone like that, you get Gabbay – damaged goods. As a homemaker, I know: You mustn’t be a perfectionist. The demand for perfectionist – that’s a manhunt.”

There’s a difference between a person who’s not a 100-percent saint and a person who allegedly gives benefits worth a billion shekels at the public’s expense so he can get good media coverage.

“Netanyahu only wants to benefit the public. Like with the submarines. Look at the roads, look at unemployment, it’s fun to go to a café. There was a time when I wasn’t able to hang out in cafes. The media should go easy on him, to send him the world’s best secretary, so he won’t need to get advice from his wife. And now all the people who helped him are in custody. That’s not how you help someone, it pains me.”

The conversation with Shay gets more surprising by the minute, especially when she talks about the period in which she studied theology. “By the way,” she says, “the world’s best theologians are in Iran. They have terrific ideas in Iran. Here the key to peace is with them. I am in favor of the theologians making peace.”

Can Netanyahu make peace with Iran?

“In my opinion, it’s possible for Netanyahu to make peace with Iran. It’s brains versus brains, and there’s nothing like them for brains. I admire Iranian thought.”

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