Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was at the height of his rhetorical powers Sunday evening at the Hanukkah candle-lighting in Likud’s Jerusalem branch.
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“Have you ever gone to the doctor when something was hurting you and suddenly it disappears?” Netanyahu asked. “That’s how I feel. Every gathering that I come to is bursting, bursting. Hundreds inside and thousands outside.”
Netanyahu noted that Likud had decided to open the event to the press this time, “But you already know what the media will say. Has the magic faded?” “No,” the crowd shouted angrily. “Has the momentum gone to the other side?” “No,” the crowd yelled even louder, adding “Haida [Viva] Bibi!”
Perhaps the prime minister was hoping otherwise, but the event was rather sparsely attended. There were maybe 200 people inside and there certainly weren’t thousands outside. But no, the magic hasn’t faded, at least not in the eyes of those in attendance. Among them were most of the party’s ministers and MKs, and both prominent and less prominent Jerusalem branch activists. “Nothing will help the leftists for at least another 20 years,” shouted one. “You’re the Maccabee,” yelled another.
After the event began, the organizers brought in dividers that made the hall look smaller and somewhat obscured the poor attendance. Afterward they distributed printed posters, “Women for Netanyahu,” in pink, “Soldiers for Netanyahu” in khaki and “Haredim for Netanyahu,” in dark blue. The emcee for the evening, branch head Ilan Gordo, didn’t spare any praise for the leader, calling him “the honorable, great and benevolent prime minister,” as he invited Netanyahu to the podium.
Nor did the prime minister spare himself any praise as he waved a letter written to him by children at the Kinor preschool in Harish. “We want to invite you to visit us because 1. You’re important. 2. You protect us. 3. You help the Land of Israel. 4. We love you. 5. It would make us happy,” he read happily.
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Later, as in every speech he gives in Jerusalem, he recalled his days as a child in the divided city and mentioned that he’s left-handed. “I’m a lefty but not …” he said, and the crowd joyfully finished the sentence with the term that has become almost a curse.
He compared the decision of the International Criminal Court in The Hague to investigate alleged war crimes in the territories to the decrees of Antiochus. “It’s an anti-Semitic move. To say that Jews have no right to live in the land of the Jewish people, in Judea and Samaria? They define that as a war crime, but that definition is itself a crime,” he said.
The present absentee at the event was his rival in the upcoming party primary, Gideon Sa’ar. Netanyahu did not mention him, and only pushed those present to go vote, “In any weather, if it rains or storms.” The crowd was convinced that the prime minister would win the contest. “Sa’ar,” said Moti Am-Shalom, an activist from Jerusalem, “doesn’t even have a zero-point-zero percent chance.”
The ministers and MKs present didn’t get any kind of mention. There were there solely as a backdrop. The crowd sought to get close to them, but it was Justice Minister Amir Ohana who got most of the attention. Calls of “Ohana, Ohana,” briefly recalled another Jerusalem hero, Eli Ohana, from the YMCA soccer field during the 1980s.
At the same time, in a small hall in Ashdod, the word “brave” was heard again and again. In the Netanyahu era, anyone who supports Sa’ar is indeed courageous. Some 150 residents of Ashdod and its environs had come to Sa’ar’s candle-lighting event; a few admitted that they aren’t connected to Likud but had come at the request of the event’s organizer, Gabi Kanfo, Ashdod’s deputy mayor and an associated of Sa’ar’s.
Lachish Regional Council chairman Danny Moravia said that he had started to support Sa’ar because over the past three years, “Netanyahu has lost his way.”
“They started to call me a traitor,” he added. Netanyahu “sees only Bibi. I have friends on the left who feel they’re not part of this nation.”
The difference between Netanyahu and Sa’ar is hard to conceal. The hall in Ashdod was full, but the energy that’s present at Netanyahu’s events wasn’t there. When Sa’ar got up to speak, some of the audience didn’t even stand up. His speech, which for several long minutes was rather sleep-inducing, infused the crowd with mild enthusiasm only a few times. During parts of the speech, even his associates onstage were busy with their cell phones.
“There’s nothing you can do, Bibi is a volcano,” said one of those in attendance, who is considering voting for Sa’ar.
Some of those interviewed wouldn’t allow their names to be used, while others refused to be photographed. One of those deliberating was a 27-year-old Ashdod resident. “I’m not ashamed of my opinion, but I wouldn’t feel comfortable expressing my doubts to every person in the party,” he said. “There are those who are rabid Bibi supporters. They don’t accept any other view and I don’t want to antagonize them.”
Another Sa’ar supporter, Shlomo, said he isn’t afraid, but nonetheless would only give his first name. He said he had voted Likud in every election until a decade ago, but left the party when Netanyahu returned to power. When asked if there were others like him who are put off by Netanyahu and are now “coming home,” he said he thinks there are “a lot of people like me, who didn’t find themselves [in the party] during the Netanyahu era and preferred to leave.” He said that if Sa’ar didn’t win the primary, he wouldn’t vote Likud in March, either.