Israel Didn't Need Russia to Compromise Its Election. It Did So All on Its Own

All sides use private investigators and cyber ops, but Netanyahu was way ahead of his rivals ■ Netanyahu said he almost 'ignited' the Mideast – what did he mean?

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a campaign rally in the lead up to the March 2020 election, Israel, February 25, 2020
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a campaign rally in the lead up to the March 2020 election, Israel, February 25, 2020Credit: Gil Eliahu
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

The end of this week’s election in an effective stalemate – in complete contrast to the false picture painted by the media in the initial hours after the polling stations closed – takes us back almost to the starting point. Accordingly, even a fourth election looks like a possible scenario. But maybe the spread of the coronavirus in Israel, which began to spark increasing waves of panic in the 24 hours following the election, will serve as an excuse for breaking the political deadlock and force a unity government on the rival sides, even if that’s not really what they want.

Bibi limps to election 'victory.' But he didn't win

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Benjamin Netanyahu might still have something to gain from a war of attrition that will leave him at the head of a transitional government until summer and drag the bruised and conflicted Kahol Lavan into a fourth election campaign. Even that party’s leader, Benny Gantz, seems to have lost his patience in the face of the base, personal smear campaign Likud has waged against him. That campaign has left such a bitter taste, that the very thought of joining a government in rotation with Netanyahu is likely a repellent thought to him.

Still, it looks as if the prospects for coerced unity will increase as the coronavirus crisis deepens, and the extensive economic implications and the serious restrictions on everyday life become more apparent in the months ahead. One result is likely to be growing public and media pressure on the parties to reach a compromise, on the grounds that the crisis demands urgent, comprehensive action, based on a broad consensus. If Kahol Lavan succeeds with the political stunts it is setting in motion – replacement of the Knesset Speaker and enactment of a law that would prevent the president from assigning formation of a government to an MK who is under indictment – Netanyahu’s bargaining power could be weakened and the unity option may be considered seriously by all.

The final week of this election campaign was riveting. Large parts of the drama were played out every evening on TV Channel 12, in the form of a series of revelations, most of them based on audio recordings. They related to the start of an investigation against Fifth Dimension, the now-defunct company that Gantz chaired; to comments by Gantz’s polling adviser deriding his boss’ ability to lead the country (or to bomb Iran); to an explanation by Netanyahu’s eminence grise of how Likud’s strategy was based on leveraging hatred; and finally, to remarks in which the prime minister himself is heard (albeit unclearly) dealing with the way another recording will be leaked to the media, just one day after he vehemently denied having anything to do with the matter.

Benny Gantz and Avigdor Lieberman at their meeting in Kfar Maccabiah, November 14, 2019.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

Betwixt and between, Likud vigorously marketed two lethal messages. The first, that Gantz is not stable, intelligent or even sane enough to lead Israel in its rough and tough Middle East neighborhood. The second, that Gantz is completely dependent on the Joint List, so any political move he makes will be ipso facto illegitimate. Likud’s habit of tossing all norms overboard when it comes to its attitude toward Israel’s Arab citizens became even more acute on the day after the election, when Netanyahu discovered the gap between his hopes and reality. The bloc of right-wing and ultra-Orthodox parties decreased from 60 Knesset seats forecast in the exit polls to 58 in the real count – and arrogance turned to panic. In its wake came an attempt to dictate a new type of arithmetic, one that simply ignores 15 of the 120 Knesset members elected this week, those of the Joint List.

It all sounds like old hat, but it’s worth dwelling on the tactics Netanyahu and Likud resorted to during the past year’s three election campaigns. A few years ago, the previous Israel Defense Forces chief of staff, Gadi Eisenkot, warned against the intervention of a foreign power in Israel’s elections; for his part, Nadav Argaman, head of the Shin Bet security service, apparently hinted more bluntly at the dangers of Russian meddling. But if in the meantime no signs of unusual Russian interest in political developments here have been revealed, it now seems as though Israeli politics is endangering the hygiene of its elections all by itself.

Such activities don’t only involve leaking recordings in dubious circumstances, which is apparently something Kahol Lavan was also guilty of. In advance of Monday’s voting, Likud posted two videos of Gantz that were edited with the deliberate intent of presenting him as muddle-headed, employed an app intended for rallying voters that in fact exposed the full details of Israel’s voter registry to anyone who might be interested (including, undoubtedly, foreign intelligence services), and issued two threats against the judicial system. On the “Meet the Press” show last weekend, Netanyahu said he respected the court that will be hearing his case, but added that, “they say the judges chosen for me are members of the left wing,” while Likud MK Miki Zohar warned the High Court of Justice not to dare to prevent a Netanyahu under indictment from forming a government.

Concurrently, senior Likud figures openly declared their intention of inducing Kahal Lavan MKs to cross the aisle into their ranks. This week in Haaretz and TheMarker, Gur Megiddo and Chaim Levinson reported that private investigators, contacted by lawyers close to Netanyahu, were hired to collect information for possibly blackmail of Gantz and of Kahol Lavan MK Omer Yankelevich – the latter of whom was depicted as a potential defector to Likud. In such a context, it is probably appropriate to evoke the Russian term “kompromat.”

All this is related to two earlier stories, one well known, the other less so: the hacking of Gantz’s mobile phone, news of which was published ahead of the first election, last April; and the (failed) attempt to smear Yisrael Beiteinu head Avigdor Lieberman with the charge of being a Russian agent, immediately after he resigned as defense minister in November 2018. In the case of the phone, which was trumpeted again obsessively by Netanyahu’s mouthpieces before this week’s election, there is still much that isn’t known. Was it actually the Iranians who hacked the phone, or did someone beat them to it? Was the affair properly investigated, and if so what did the authorities find? And if there really were embarrassing messages or clips on the device, how is it that they haven’t been leaked yet, despite the claims of those in the prime minister’s vicinity.

The Lieberman story is even weirder, because it was based on a completely false quote attributed to former Mossad chief Tamir Pardo. Pardo demanded that the defense establishment check the episode, but never got a response.

There’s no point feigning innocence. None of those involved in the political battles is a monk or a saint. This is a dark universe that involves vast amounts of money, private investigators and cyber operations, of which we occasionally get a small glimpse. But here, too, Netanyahu looks to be well ahead of his rivals. Both in sophistication and in total lack of restraint.

Loose tongues

On Wednesday, in a somewhat emotional appearance before members of the Knesset’s right-wing bloc, the prime minister revealed a deep secret. On the eve of the vote this week, he said, he received “a proposal to take a step which I think would have ignited the whole Middle East. It’s very likely that it would have given us [the bloc] a victory. I refused to do it.” There’s no doubt about it: We Israeli citizens should be grateful to him, yet again.

As far as is known, Netanyahu was referring to a proposal to open Temple Mount to Jewish worshippers on Saturdays (it is unclear how seriously he considered this option). Another possibility is that he was alluding to a military operation in the Gaza Strip. If so, it wouldn’t have been the first time. As has been reported here, on the eve of last September’s vote, he was on the brink of launching a large-scale operation, and was only blocked when the attorney general, Avichai Mendelblit, was alerted by the IDF about his intentions and made it clear to Netanyahu that any such move could not be undertaken without an in-depth discussion in the security cabinet.

In October, too, there were signs that Netanyahu was considering a similar move, when he deliberately inflated the immediacy of the Iranian threat to Israel. The Revolutionary Guards did in fact strike Saudi oil facilities at that time, and deployed missiles in Iraq and in Yemen, but in retrospect it’s quite clear that the prime minister dragged the IDF’s top brass into his public scare campaign because at the time, he was still hoping to persuade Gantz to join his coalition and forgo a third election.

Fires burn in the distance after a drone strike claimed by Yemen's Iran-aligned Houthi group on Saudi company Aramco's oil processing facilities, Saudi Arabia September 14, 2019Credit: REUTERS

When the exit polls were initially publicized this week, and Netanyahu declared victory, there were undoubtedly some in the General Staff who also breathed a sigh of relief. The IDF is one of the main casualties of the prolonged political deadlock in the country, because of the freezing of the budget and the impossibility of moving forward with the chief of staff’s multiyear plan, entitled Tnufa (Momentum). But Lt. Gen. Aviv Kochavi would be deluding himself if he thinks the political route to stability was paved here this week. Netanyahu’s loose-tongued revelation about the historic move he was contemplating, like the incident of the bulldozer scooping up a dead Palestinian at the Gaza Strip border last week, attest to the pressure affecting him and Defense Minister Naftali Bennett, whose party once again won only a handful of seats.

The coming period of coalition negotiations will once more put to the test the ability of the IDF hierarchy to maintain a strong backbone at difficult times.

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