Analysis

Lebanon Crisis Provides Brief Respite From Netanyahu’s Increasingly Deranged Election Campaign

The prime minister’s delusional tirade against concocted enemies is scary if contrived - and terrifying if genuine

Netanyahu during a ceremony opening the school year in the Jewish settlement of Elkana in the West Bank, September 1, 2019
\ AMIR COHEN/ REUTERS

The meticulously stage-managed Hezbollah retaliation against Israel on Sunday brought both good news and bad news. The good news is that a potentially destructive military escalation on Israel’s northern border was averted. The bad news is that the all-clear signal in the north – which may only be temporary – frees Netanyahu to return to his increasingly and dangerously demented election campaign. (For the latest election polls – click here)

Not that electioneering was totally absent from the Lebanon flare-up, at least in its closing lines.  An elaborate and somewhat bizarre Israeli ruse meant to feign casualties so that Nasrallah could declare “mission accomplished!” was undermined by overeager cabinet minister Yoav Galant who blurted out the truth.

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Benjamin Netanyahu then upped the ante by gloating over Hezbollah’s failure to leave “even a scratch” on any Israeli soldier, seemingly goading Nasrallah not to make do with Sunday’s attack. Netanyahu was roundly criticized for once again straying from Israel’s previous policy of “ambiguity” concerning its military operations, including the attacks on Iranian militias in Iraq and on a Hezbollah plant in Beirut, for purely political reasons.

>> Read more: Israel, Hezbollah find way out of escalation, but a critical dilemma remains | Analysis ■ It's now clear: Netanyahu won't rest until a journalist's blood is spilled | Analysis

Nonetheless, Netanyahu and the army chiefs deserve credit for containing a fierce and potentially devastating confrontation with Hezbollah, sustaining manageable damage in return for Israel’s recent drone attack on the Beirut plant developing precision-guidance for Hezbollah’s formidable missile arsenal. Netanyahu’s deft handling of the situation, however, stood in sharp contrast to his increasingly unhinged election campaign.

To crib from Robert Louis Stevenson, it seems that while Dr. Benjamin Jekyll continues to manage Israel’s affairs of state, Mr. Bibi Hyde has taken over the Likud’s election campaign.

Dr. Jekyll is the responsible statesman who has generally garnered positive reviews for his careful management of Israel’s ongoing war against Iran and its proxies in Lebanon, Syria and even Iraq. Mr. Hyde, on the other hand, is the divisive demagogue whose incitement against the media and legal system is escalating while his grip on reality seems to loosen.

On Saturday night, in a 30-minute faux-interview posted on Facebook, Hyde/Netanyahu launched another vicious tirade against Channel 2 reporter Guy Peleg for publishing transcripts of testimonies rendered by state witnesses in one of Netanyahu’s outstanding corruption cases – but he expanded his offensive this time to include the station’s managers and owners as well.  Netanyahu equated their journalistic exposes with acts of terror, immediately exposing them to an avalanche of abuse and death threats on social media – and that wasn’t even the worst of it.

In a transparent effort to harm Channel 12, Netanyahu picked on the new HBO series “Our Boys”, which recounts the brutal murder of Palestinian teen Mohammed Abu-Khdeir by Jewish zealots seeking revenge for the kidnapping and murder of three Israeli teens in July 2014. The Israeli-American miniseries – hitherto lauded for its sensitive depiction of the apprehension of the perpetrators by the Shin Bet and widely seen as another feather in the cap of Israel’s internationally successful television industry – was described by Netanyahu as “anti-Semitic,” no less. The prime minister called on his minions to boycott Channel 12 in return.

But Netanyahu went full blast bonkers when he seemed to be contemplating a nightly Facebook appearance, which he dubbed “The Truth Newscast” without so much as a wink to George Orwell. His “truth”, Netanyahu said, would compete with what he described as Channel 12’s “Gantz-TV”, despite the fact that the station’s interviews with the Kahol Lavan leader and obsessive reporting about discord in its ranks have inflicted more damage on his challenger than all other news outlets combined.

But you have to see and hear the entire post to grasp the full measure of Netanyahu’s dangerous dementia. His appearance is riveting and appalling at the same time, rendering a Trumpian harangue, albeit one delivered by a far more cunning and accomplished performer. Netanyahu fully lives up to his reputation as a charismatic TV personality second to none but exceeds his own high standards as a truth-bending, fear-mongering, hate-spreading rabble-rouser who can brainwash his followers to his heart’s content.

Notwithstanding the mountains of damning evidence publicized by Attorney General Avihai Mendelblit in his March declaration of intent to indict him on charges of corruption, Netanyahu has consistently and vociferously denied any wrongdoing. Consistent with his denial, he has depicted press leaks of hitherto unpublicized testimonies of witnesses against him as “fake news,” “a witch hunt" and now “a terror attack against democracy.” But his onslaughts have never been as focused, ominous, potentially lethal or detached from reality as his latest volley.

The more comforting assessment of the prime minister’s blitzkrieg against the media and its supposed lackeys in the legal system – along with the little that remains of Israel’s checks and balances – is that this is vintage Netanyahu, albeit on steroids. After all, Netanyahu’s election campaigns are renowned for their fabrications and incitement – from Yitzhak Rabin selling Israeli security to Yasser Arafat to the cynically concocted 2015 cry of “Arabs flocking to polls.” His 2019 bogeyman is the media, which Netanyahu’s fans, primed by their leader, have come to denigrate and despise.

By this account, Netanyahu’s most recent dive into the cesspool in which he thrives is a calculated campaign ploy aimed at diverting attention from his alleged corruption while firing up his base against a purported wide-ranging “plot” to depose him. If his propaganda seems more desperate than ever it is only because Netanyahu is literally fighting for his own personal freedom and is increasingly apprehensive about losing the battle. Netanyahu is convinced that his one-time protégé and former defense minister Avigdor Lieberman is gunning for his head and is thus getting increasingly frenzied due to Lieberman’s growing strength in the polls.

The far scarier scenario has Netanyahu succumbing to his well-documented paranoia and persecution complex, amplified ten times over by his wife Sara and son Yair, pushing him to embrace the delusional figments of his own imagination. He described Channel 12, for example, as a stifling monopoly, despite the existence of two mainstream competitors – both of which Netanyahu tried to dismantle – as well as a burgeoning stable of television, radio and print outlets that are unabashedly pro-Netanyahu.

Netanyahu’s performance on Saturday night may have been so completely compelling, therefore, not because it featured Israel’s consummate political actor but because his appearance was no act at all. Netanyahu may actually see himself now as a latter-day Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish martyr about to be felled by a sinister cabal comprised of leftist defeatists and cosmopolitan anti-Semites. His distraught reactions to press reports about his alleged corruption are getting loonier because Netanyahu himself is going berserk at the hands of the demons he invented all by himself.

The short-term danger is that Netanyahu’s dementia, feigned or genuine, will inflame the election campaign, inspire fear and loathing and possibly provoke violence against those “plotting” against him. The long-term and far more sinister danger is that if and when he wins the September 17 election, Netanyahu won’t discard his persecuted victim mentality, as many expect, but take it with him, fully-loaded, to his fifth straight term in office.

Netanyahu will then unleash all his pent-up fury and lust for revenge on freedom of speech, civil liberties and rule of law until he has felled what increasingly seems like his greatest adversary – Israeli democracy itself.

A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that the three Israelis kidnapped and murdered in July 2014 were soldiers.