8 Days to Elections: Coronavirus Undermines Netanyahu’s Trump-style Smear Campaign Against Rival Gantz

The defamation offensive evokes both the 2016 Clinton email scandal and the allegations of Biden-linked corruption in Ukraine

Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev
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The coronavirus quarantine in Sheba Medical Center, Tel Hashomer, Israel, February 2 2020.
The coronavirus quarantine in Sheba Medical Center, Tel Hashomer, Israel, February 2 2020. Credit: Moti Milrod
Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev

A group of South Korean tourists found to have contracted the coronavirus upon their return from a pilgrimage to Israel has sparked public concern bordering on hysteria over the past few days. But while the search for infected Israelis has so far failed to yield results, the epidemic has claimed its first victim: Benjamin Netanyahu’s Trump-inspired dirty-tricks effort to taint his chief rival, Benny Gantz, with the same kind of corruption for which the prime minister is slated to stand trial two weeks after next Monday’s election.

Netanyahu’s well-orchestrated crusade seemed to be taken directly from the Donald Trump playbook. It combined a malicious manufacturing of mountains out of molehills reminiscent of Hillary Clinton’s 2016 email affair, wanton hurling of mud at a political rival in the hope that some of it sticks – emulating Trump’s allegations of Joe Biden’s supposed corruption in Ukraine – and the craven collaboration of kowtowing Justice Ministry officials who added ersatz legal legitimacy to a patently political ploy.

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In fact, there’s even a direct link between the Gantz brouhaha and Russia’s election intervention on behalf of Trump. The company Fifth Dimension that Gantz headed before entering politics was owned and funded by Ukrainian oligarch Viktor Vekselberg, who was questioned by Special Counsel Robert Mueller in connection with the Russia intervention affair. Sources close to Fifth Dimension claimed that Vekselberg pulled out of the company after being effectively declared persona non grata in the United States. Vekesleberg has denied the claim, saying that his decision to stop funding Fifth Dimension was a result of its dismal business performance.

Be that as it may, Netanyahu has seized on Fifth Dimension’s collapse in late 2018 and on ensuing allegations that the company may have misled its only client, the Israel Police, about its technological expertise. Even though the state comptroller and Justice Ministry attorneys who examined the Fifth Dimension file found no grounds to designate Gantz a suspect, over the past few weeks Netanyahu and his minions have repeatedly asserted that the supposed scandal proves that Gantz is – so goes the insinuation – no less corrupt than Netanyahu himself.

A Kahol Lavan campaign poster displayed in Rehovot, Israel, February 18, 2020. Credit: Ilan Assayag

Likud party line

As in the Clinton email affair, Likud leaders took their cue from their party leader and launched a concerted campaign inflating the Fifth Dimension affair to crime-of-the-century proportions. Their libel was promoted and disseminated by the increasingly large chunk of the Israeli media that slavishly embraces any and all of Netanyahu’s shticks and dirty tricks, as well as the so-called independent media that has been infiltrated by senior journalists pushing the Likud party line.

Just as the mainstream media in the United States gave the Clinton email affair saturation coverage throughout the 2016 election campaign and especially in the race’s closing days, Israeli media outlets elevated the Fifth Dimension affair to the top of their agenda, despite knowing full well that Gantz wasn’t a suspect and that they were aiding and abetting Netanyahu, with Likud spreading a big lie about his political rival.

The media’s capitulation can be at least partially ascribed to its professional weakness for preferring the new over the important. True, Netanyahu was indicted by the attorney general for bribery, fraud and breach of trust following thousands of hours of police investigative work and Justice Ministry deliberations, but hey, the media’s been there and done that. Fifth Dimension provided the media with the fresh meat it craves, even though all indications are that as far as Gantz is concerned, the affair is no more than a nothingburger.

The media’s willingness to put the Fifth Dimension pseudo-scandal at the top of its agenda also reflects its frantic efforts to appear “balanced,” even if the effort entails conscious dissemination of Netanyahu’s disinformation. Netanyahu’s incessant attacks on the so-called leftist media have cowed media owners and editors, spurring them to bend over backward in the hope of averting the prime minister’s diatribes and the virulent hostility that they generate among his ardent followers.

Acting State Prosecutor Dan Eldad – appointed by Netanyahu’s henchman, Justice Minister Amir Ohana, over Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit’s strenuous objections – provided the finishing touch. Eldad repaid his benefactors with political gold by announcing the launch of a criminal investigation into the Fifth Dimension scandal. Eldad’s decision violated the traditional self-imposed Justice Ministry moratorium on sensitive decisions in the period leading up to elections. His official statement on the impending probe also omitted one critical element: Gantz isn’t suspected of any wrongdoing.

Benjamin Netanyahu and his family cheering for Betar Jerusalem in a soccer match against Hapoel Tel Aviv, February 17, 2020. Credit: Nir Keidar


The timing of Eldad’s bombshell, 10 days before the election, couldn’t but evoke former FBI Director James Comey’s announcement on October 28, 2016 that a new trove of leaked Clinton emails required the reopening of the FBI investigation that was closed in July 2016 with no criminal findings against Clinton but with Comey’s verdict that she had been “extremely careless” in her use of a private email server.

Eight days later, two days before the November 8 ballot, Comey announced that the reexamination hadn’t changed the FBI’s original findings, but by then the damage was done. The Democratic candidate was tarred and feathered. Her alleged wrongdoing, from which she was recently cleared in a separate State Department probe, was put on par with Trump’s, moderating the impact of his infamous “pussy tape” released in early October and possibly providing him with the edge that allowed him to eke out an Electoral College victory.

Netanyahu’s ruse appeared at first to enjoy similar success. With time steadily eroding its impact, the excited wall-to-wall media coverage of the Fifth Dimension scandal eclipsed the prime minister’s well-documented abuse of power. It inflamed hitherto indifferent Likud voters, now eager to embrace any and all conspiracy theories exonerating their idol from his criminal charges.

The focus on Gantz’s alleged misdeeds seemed to shift the tide of the election campaign, raising renewed fears that Netanyahu would once again work his black magic to dupe voters and achieve an improbable come-from-behind election victory. This would give him the 61-seat Knesset majority that would grant him immunity from the indictments and in the process derail Israeli democracy and rule of law.

Fate and coincidence, however, may have foiled Netanyahu’s designs. Fears that the hapless South Korean pilgrims may have spread the virus far and wide during their week-long tour of Israel effectively erased the Fifth Dimension controversy from the headlines, ending Netanyahu’s smear campaign before it could inflict irreparable damage on his rivals’ campaign.

Which brings us back to square one: complete cluelessness about the results of the pivotal March 2 poll underpinned by conventional wisdom that foresees a continuation of the current political stalemate. For all we know, if Clinton had been similarly “blessed” with the outbreak of a potentially deadly plague before the 2016 vote, the reverberations from her email scandal may have diminished just enough for her to win the election and for history to continue on a radically different path.

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