Analysis |

Can the 'Menachem Begin Project' Drive Netanyahu Crazy Like the Lincoln Project Did to Trump?

The prime minister is a master campaigner with decades of experience in shrugging off criticism. How can Gideon Sa’ar’s hired guns get under Netanyahu’s skin?

Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer
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U.S. President Donald Trump and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on the West Wing Colonnade at the White House in Washington, D.C., January 27, 2020.
U.S. President Donald Trump and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on the West Wing Colonnade at the White House in Washington, D.C., January 27, 2020.Credit: SAUL LOEB / AFP
Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

Gideon Sa’ar has hired one of the hottest teams in the business to work on his anti-Netanyahu New Hope party’s campaign. He has brought along four of the founders of the Lincoln Project, the crew of moderate Republicans who produced a series of incendiary television ads that drove U.S. President Donald Trump crazy and played a role, though it’s unclear how central, in ensuring Joe Biden’s victory.

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A senior member of New Hope assured me that “they were hired not to do an Israeli version of the Lincoln Project, but because they are obviously very skilled campaigners who can give us useful advice.” But at the same time, he wouldn’t rule out that their hiring means New Hope is planning to go for Netanyahu’s jugular.

There’s an easy symmetry to the two situations. The never-Trumpers of the Lincoln Project claimed that Trump and his fellow travelers had hijacked the Republican Party and that no self-respecting conservative should be voting for him. The anti-Bibists of New Hope are saying much the same thing about Netanyahu transforming Likud, their party, into his own personal cult and safe haven for evading his corruption trial. But can the dark ads of the Lincoln Project, which accused Trump of rank corruption, incompetence and even treason, work in Israel?

Trump was a newcomer to politics, and to the Republican Party. He had little understanding of how the federal government works or of geopolitics, and even less interest in educating himself. His business interests, and the way he used his presidential position to continue serving them, were there for all to see. He was a clear target. The Lincoln Project’s ads were calculated to get under Trump’s skin and stoke his already massive paranoias as much as they were aimed at wavering Republicans.

Netanyahu has been a professional politician for 34 years. He’s a master campaigner with a real and lasting connection to a large voter base. For decades, he’s been on the receiving end of intense criticism from the media and his political opponents. Can New Hope’s hired guns come up with something new that will dent Netanyahu’s armor?

New Hope is the first major challenge to Netanyahu and Likud on the right. There have, of course, always been smaller right-wing parties, more extreme or more religious than Likud. New Hope is different, not only in its potential size – according to the polls, it is second only to Netanyahu’s party – but in its claim to an essentially identical ideology to Likud. That is, the pre-Netanyahu Likud of Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Shamir. This is what they have in common with Lincoln Project’s never-Trumpers, who claimed to stand for what the Republican Party once was.

What would a Begin Project look like?

New Hope is doing relatively well in the polls, but so far it has drawn mainly centrists who voted in the previous election for Kahol Lavan. To become a serious threat to Netanyahu, it needs to prise his Likudniks away from him.

To be effective, it would have to focus on Netanyahu personally, with a relentlessness that previous political campaigns have failed to achieve. The ads would have to center on specific issues that are not overtly political, so as not to repel the Likudniks that New Hope needs to attract. These could include his mishandling of the coronavirus pandemic and the murky details of Netanyahu’s shares in a company that profited from his involvement in the purchase of submarines and corvettes for the Israeli Navy from a German shipyard. Attacking him on these fronts would also challenge Netanyahu’s claims to be the man saving Israel from COVID-19 and the guarantor of Israel’s security.

Other issues may be less effective. Attacking Netanyahu on the corruption cases he has already been indicted for could backfire. Most Likudniks already believe Netanyahu has been unfairly prosecuted for minor offenses that all politicians commit. And besides, they’ve heard all of it before. Using the allegations of corruption in the “Thousands Cases” would risk lumping New Hope in with the rest of the “hostile media” and “legal deep state.”

Targeting Netanyahu’s alliance with the ultra-Orthodox parties would also be ineffective. Netanyahu’s predecessors all had Shas and United Torah Judaism in their coalitions, and Sa’ar would include them as well if he gets the chance. Many Likudniks are also religious, and feel some affinity for the ultra-Orthodox.

Gideon Sa'ar at a tour of Hadassah Hospital, Ein Kerem, in Jerusalem, December 16, 2020.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

Presenting the historic image of Begin, Likud’s founder, should work. The contrast between Netanyahu’s lavish lifestyle and Begin’s austerity is too striking not to use. But it would be a mistake to push the comparisons too far. Begin, after all, dragged Israel into a disastrous war in Lebanon and his government’s economic policy led to spiraling hyperinflation. Personalities aside, Netanyahu has been a blessedly risk-averse leader and able administrator of Israel’s finances.

A Begin Project needs to be about personality, not policy. Likudniks revere Begin as a symbol for leading the party through three decades of wilderness in the opposition before reaching the promised land of government in 1977. Netanyahu has become a symbol as well – a symbol of holding onto power. Likudniks like that. New Hope needs to convince them that Netanyahu may be in office, but he isn’t actually in power, that he isn’t embodying Likud’s Jabotinskean values of “Hadar” – nationalist decorum – or carrying out its core policies. He is only trying to evade justice.

There’s a chance that, just like the Lincoln Project with Trump, a Begin Project could unnerve Netanyahu and get under his skin. Comparisons to Begin are particularly galling to him.

Unlike most Likudniks, Netanyahu was brought up to despise Begin. His father, Benzion, was a member of a rival faction in the Revisionist-Zionist movement. He never joined Likud under Begin, and regarded him an intellectual lightweight and a weak politician. Benzion Netanyahu’s disdain for Begin only grew once he became prime minister and signed the Camp David Accords, returning the Sinai Peninsula to Egypt in exchange for peace. He saw it as a defeatist and strategic mistake. His son Bibi is of a similar opinion, and never praises Begin for making peace with Egypt. Instead, he extols his own “peace for peace” deals.

Netanyahu instead compares himself to Jabotinsky and David Ben-Gurion; his wife and sons constantly tell him he is greater even than them. Begin with his respect for the courts and the civil service is beneath him. The small “Bibist” hard-core around him share this view and see Begin as someone who “didn’t know how to rule.” But Netanyahu will never say a bad word about Begin in public, as he is still too popular among rank-and-file Likudniks. A clever Begin Project could provoke him to say what he really thinks about St. Menachem.

Disrupting your rival’s peace of mind is often the most efficient way of enticing his voters. The Lincoln Project was as much a campaign of personal psychological warfare, buying airtime for its ads on Fox News shows it knew Trump would be watching. Some of Trump’s missteps over the election year, including the firing of his experienced campaign manager Brad Parscale, can be attributed directly to the Lincoln Project’s provocations.

Netanyahu is a much tougher nut to crack, but he has his vulnerabilities as well. Sa’ar and his colleagues, who all worked for Netanyahu for years, know where these raw nerves are. Hiring Trump’s tormentors indicates that they plan to touch those nerves.