Analysis

Netanyahu Hoped Trump's Plan Would Help Him Win. How Much Difference Did It Actually Make?

Netanyahu commissioned polls to find out. The findings were a slap in the face

Illustration
Amos Biderman

Eleven days, nine if you don’t count the Saturdays, remain in this election campaign, and like the Fiat in the iconic skit of the Israeli Hagashah Hahiver comedy trio – it’s stuck. It doesn’t move in reverse, it doesn’t move forward. The polls are static and the fluctuations are minuscule, all of them within the statistical margin of error. It looks quite likely now that we will wake up on March 3 to the exact same numbers, the exact same paralysis, the exact same abominable imbroglio, and the existential question that’s become the essence of our life lately: What in the world is Avigdor Lieberman, the deus ex machina, going to do?

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All the parties have come to terms with the anticipated absence of a clear-cut result. This is the third election campaign in the past 11 months, and the voters have made their decision; they can no longer be influenced. This isn’t an election of communication, it’s an election of organization, as a strategist in one of the big parties put it. Communication has exhausted itself and now everything is down to organization: infrastructure, fieldwork, transportation, moving activists from place to place, persuasion, energizing voters. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s looming trial, whose opening date of March 17 was set this week, hasn’t hurt Likud. Moreover, the expected launch of a criminal examination into the affairs of Fifth Dimension, a now-defunct company headed by Benny Gantz (who is not a suspect at this stage) won’t change the mind of anyone who intends to vote for his Kahol Lavan party.

The most interesting development relates to U.S. President Donald Trump’s “deal of the century.” It was marketed to us as a historic development, virtually equal in significance to Israel’s the Declaration of Independence. Yet, it’s unlikely that it will have induced even 100 voters to switch sides. Indeed, in Likud, they’re going crazy with frustration. Netanyahu commissioned a series of polls to find out what’s behind the apparent indifference to what was described by his people as the crowning glory of his 14 years as prime minister, the fulfillment of the dream of the nations of the world and the triumph of Zionism.

The findings were like a slap in the face. The issue of annexation, he discovered, is of interest only to the ideological right – voters of Yamina and further to the right. Netanyahu’s voters, those in Likud, are mostly showing sweeping imperturbability. They’re more interested in core issues of life itself: the cost of living, housing prices, health care, traffic jams. They don’t object in principle to Israel imposing its law on Area C in the West Bank, which is already under its de facto control, on the Jordan Valley and so on, but what does that have to do with their bank balance? With the ever-diminishing prospect of being able to buy an apartment for their kids?

Even those who exulted and danced, in the streets of Washington and in the settlements, after Trump’s plan was unveiled don’t believe Netanyahu anymore. While still in America, he promised an expedited imposition of sovereignty, an annexationist blitz. Only after the Americans clipped his wings did he discover, to his surprise, that we’re talking about a “huge area – huge” (as Netanyahu has been saying in recent interviews), and you know, mapping it will take time, that’s how it is.

It’s a matter of a few weeks, he’s promising, and we will impose sovereignty. But he’s lying again. Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and the progenitor of the whole scheme, has spoken explicitly in interviews about the need for a “functioning government” in Israel before any sort of step is taken. Kushner was referring to a permanent government, not a transition government of the sort that, willy-nilly, will remain with us even after the March election. So, a word of advice to all those thirsting for annexation: Keep the champagne on ice.

Nought to be

Deal of the century – zero impact. The release from a Moscow prison of Naama Issachar – zero impact. Developments involving Falashmura, Uganda, Sudan – triple zero impact. And Nir Barkat, the finance minister-designate and his economic plan – zero squared. Not a Knesset seat or even one-10th of one was added to the Likud’s polling in the wake of the anointing of the wildly ambitious Barkat as the heir apparent to Moshe Kahlon.

Joint List head Ayman Odeh.
Moti Milrod

What did happen? The promise of the coveted appointment will remain on ice, but things were heated up in Likud. Barkat’s status was upgraded. In the next Likud leadership primary, which in the event of a fourth election will be this summer, the bets will be that he and Amir Ohana will make it into the top five spots on the party slate.

Netanyahu is not a kid, and he understands polls, so it’s unlikely that he bought Barkat’s fanciful notions about tectonic shifts and the electoral migration of peoples that will result from his appointment as finance minister. Still, there are two motives that are apparently relevant here. One is Kahol Lavan’s decision at present, as opposed to during the last two election campaigns, to stress an economic-social welfare platform – at the top of which are national priorities and the foundering health system. Likud annexed Kahlon and his people even before September, but the outgoing treasury minister is now a political lame duck by choice. He’s not part of the campaign and hasn’t opened his mouth for months. Not when he was called upon to address the budget deficit issue, or, in particular, when the affair of his exchange of text messages with lawyer Eti Craif made headlines.

Likud can’t leave that vacuum to be filled by Kahol Lavan. Following the announcement about Barkat, the ruling party launched a mini-economic campaign, with a pile of promises for reforms that have not and will not be carried out. It also dredged up the old scare tactic about “Avi Nissenkorn as finance minister” and a return to the economics of the Histadrut federation of labor, which he headed. As a targeted response to the economic issue, then, his costly polls did the job for Barkat.

On the personal side, the fact is that the only person who profited here is the relatively new MK who craves Netanyahu’s chair. (He’s telling interlocutors that Likud folks view him, more than any other figure in the political arena, as a kind of Netanyahu clone – WASP-like, clever, rich, good-looking, a combat soldier: namely, his natural successor.) Netanyahu isn’t known for being eager to cultivate heirs and elevate vassals. He prefers to do a John the Jihadist thing: decapitate them. But the folks on Balfour Street, namely the two other powers-that-be there, think very highly of Barkat. Why? Because he “volunteered” to be the spearhead of the revilers of Gideon Sa’ar – indeed, the fiercest of them – during the recent Likud leadership primary. After all, the enemy of our enemy is our friend.

The message is the medium

Every evening, on his way back to Jerusalem from election rallies, Netanyahu gets on the phone with a few Likud ministers, and sometimes also a chance MK, who are slated to give media interviews the following day. Hoarse, bone-tired, he still insists on briefing them personally. And every evening anew, they find themselves astonished by his gushing energy.

Like a rabbi speaking with his disciples, he hammers home to them the precepts of the messages. Some are standing messages, others are transient. This week, a new item was added to the menu: the transcripts of the conversations (reported on Channel 13) between former Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi and Avichai Mendelblit (the present attorney general) in the affair of the Harpaz document (in which a colleague of Ashkenazi’s forged a document that made it look as if Yoel Gallant, one of the two top candidates to replace Ashkenazi as army chief, was attempting the smear the other, Benny Gantz. Today Gallant is a Likud MK and minister.)

“When it involves Likud, it’s the public’s right to know,” fumed the man who demanded that the attorney general not transfer the investigative materials in his cases to his lawyers before the last election, “but when it’s Kahol Lavan, the public doesn’t have the right to know.” The interlocutors were silent. What could they say to him? That it was the Supreme Court that imposed the ban on releasing the transcripts?

Another item on the premier’s grocery list is Itamar Ben-Gvir – the stubborn refusenik Kahanist who refuses to withdraw his Otzma Yehudit party from the race, even though every poll shows it taking two full seats away from the right-wing bloc. Netanyahu is urging his ministers to use their interviews to appeal to the logic of Ben-Gvir’s voters – a trait they are undoubtedly endowed with – and if not to their good sense, then to their warm Jewish hearts.

Benny Gantz.
Moti Milrod

And then there’s the Joint List, of course, the apple of his eye. Say what you will, Bibi has succeeded in imparting the understanding that Benny Gantz won’t be able to form a government without the support of the Arab MKs – and if he receives that support, his government will not be legitimate. (And if it’s not legitimate, the obvious conclusion is that it will be wrong to obey its decisions and laws, and must be rebelled against, if indeed it is formed. Elementary.)

The complacency with which this racist message – which is shared by Gantz and his colleagues in Kahol Lavan – is being swallowed by large segments of the media and the public, would seem to be a propaganda coup for Netanyahu. But if the Joint List is able to turn it to its advantage, it could prove disastrous for Netanyahu. Ayman Odeh and Ahmad Tibi could conceivably win 15, 16 seats. A slightly higher turnout by their constituency on March 2 than in September, and they’re there.

The big stars of the Netanyahu nighttime briefings are “the 300,000 voters” from the right-wing bloc who didn’t vote in the September election. That’s the recurrent motif. “Three hundred thousand! Three hundred thousand!” he fires himself up, while addressing them. “Can you grasp how many seats are lying on the floor? You just have to pick them up! Every voter will bring another person, and we’ll win. Not just win but win big-time!”

Our public, he explains to them, is ripe for a victory this time. They just have to go to the polling stations. Last time they didn’t show up for two reasons: Either they thought we would win in any case, or they thought we would lose in any case. Now the picture is clear. We only have to get them out.

Again, his listeners are silent. What are they going to tell him? That he’s part of the problem? That perhaps people have become fed up with corruption, lies, manipulation, lethal cynicism, the endless rule – his wacky family?

All in the timing

The idea of having a television debate was the last rabbit in the hat of the trickster from Balfour Street. However, because of the lack of time and the circumstances, it was pulled out limp, not even twitching.

Let’s imagine the scenario if Netanyahu had proffered such an invitation to Gantz a day or two earlier – 24 or 48 hours before the Jerusalem District Court announced that the prime minister’s trial would begin on March 17. Gantz, who had actually been pushing for a debate (knowing that the other side would refuse), would have had a hard time explaining his refusal with the excuse he gave on Wednesday about not wanting to be part of a “spin” aimed at distracting people’s attention from the trial.

The hastiness of the suggestion – made 13 days before the election – and the timing, which was as transparent as a drop of sweat, produced the opposite of what Netanyahu hoped to project: pressure instead of self-confidence, doubt instead of faith, trickery instead of credibility. The custom that’s taken root here in the past two decades is that it’s usually the underdog who initiates a TV debate.

For the past two weeks at least, a lively dialogue had been going on in Bibi’s inner circle about the wisdom of picking up the debate gauntlet that Gantz tossed him in the previous rounds (and as Gideon Sa’ar also did in the Likud leadership primary). The advisers were divided: Some thought the risk outweighed the possible benefits and that it would be best to follow the recent tradition of abstinence; others thought that their favored candidate is so proficient, so in control, that the slow, error-prone Gantz, whose tongue finds it hard to keep up with his thoughts, would be slaughtered and his body dragged to the political cemetery where Shaul Mofaz, Tzipi Livni, Shelly Yacimovich, Isaac Herzog and others – most of whom Bibi refused to debate – are buried.

It’s worth noting the time line. The Jerusalem District Court’s announcement about the trial date was communicated to the media at 3:45 P.M. on Tuesday, whereupon a code red was declared at Balfour, where Bibi was. Panic descended on Likud campaign headquarters in Airport City, as though the coronavirus had been found in the office. Netanyahu betook himself there and convened an emergency meeting. The agenda: How do we take control of the agenda? How do we eliminate, or at least minimize, tomorrow’s front-page headlines?

All the brains went into high gear; files were dusted off. A debate! It was a short meeting at headquarters; a quarter of an hour. Netanyahu had to leave. Two big rallies were on tap, in Gedera and in Rishon Letzion. He went from one city to the next, from one event to the other, but didn’t exploit either platform to make his announcement.

At 10 P.M. he arrived at the Channel 20 studio, for the third time in a week, to answer viewers’ questions. Twenty minutes into the broadcast he looked straight into the camera and issued his invitation directly to Gantz. The objective was not attaineid: The proposal and its rejection were reported in the next day’s papers, but news of the trial date overshadowed them.

The electronic media, whose theoretical prey had been ripped from its jaws by Gantz's refusal (all the channels solemnly invited the two to hold the debate in their studio, thereby serving Likud’s narrative), had to make do with archival tidbits of earlier confrontations. To that end, the current events shows broadcast and rebroadcast footage in which Yitzhak Mordechai, then leader of the Center Party, crushes Netanyahu in a debate prior to the 1999 election. Mordechai’s devastating line, “Bibi, look me in the eyes,” dripping with contempt, as Netanyahu’s eyes race back and forth like drugged cockroaches in a bottle, beamed from every screen. Also aired was a clip from a debate preceding the 1996 election in which Netanyahu defeated Shimon Peres on points.

I’d say that the most apt comparison, for our purposes, would be between Gantz-Netanyahu and Mordechai-Netanyahu. Peres was a serving prime minister, the successor of Yitzhak Rabin, who had been assassinated half a year earlier. He came to the studio arrogant, contemptuous, tired and, some say, after a shot or two of something. An old, complacent lion facing a starving, determined panther.

Mordechai, whose rhetorical skills hardly matched those of his rival, won mainly thanks to the mannerisms he’d been taught: a relaxed posture, projection of credibility, dismissive hand gestures, frequent guffaws and deadly quotes from Likud ministers who had resigned, such as Benny Begin and Dan Meridor.

Of course we’ll never know, but Gantz might have surprised if only because the expectations of him would have been so very low.

TV or not TV

On the eve of the April 2019 election, Netanyahu’s advisers came up with the idea of creating a private media channel, a sort of bypass road to the established, independent, free media. A full-fledged studio was erected at Likud’s Tel Aviv headquarters: Likud TV. A presenter was hired – a refugee from the “Big Brother” reality show named Eliraz Sadeh. The cost of the project, including the talent’s salary, was estimated to be hundreds of thousand of shekels, even over a million.

The studio broadcasts were posted simultaneously on Netanyahu’s digital outlets, notably Facebook and Twitter, where he had – and still has – hundreds of thousands of followers. Few people watched Likud TV. The conclusion for the party was obvious: Why waste so much money if you can achieve the same results for free? All that had to be done was to find an alternative Likud TV, which would be used as a launch pad for sending party propaganda to the digital media, and of course to other TV channels, news outlets and radio stations; the latter would then generate headlines pleasing to the prime minister.

The search for an alternative didn’t take long. Channel 20 had already been established as an over-the-air “Jewish heritage” channel. Since Israel has long since Become Benjamin Netanyahu and its heritage is his heritage, it was only natural for the channel to become a propaganda platform serving the right wing – but above all the leader of the camp (and sometimes his wife, Sara, and their son Yair).

There’s no argument about the quality of the channel’s programming: It lacks any. Its viewer rating scratches the 1 percent mark. Its presenters are right-wing propagandists who would remain totally unknown, were it not for the digital media being nourished by their frequent provocations, the kowtowing to the Leader, the whining, the caterwauling and the displays of self-victimization.

Even the right-wingers who are the target audience of Channel 20 are disdainful of its pathetic merchandise and prefer, every evening, to tune into the left-wing, liberal “fake news” that emanates from Channels 12, 13 and 11.

Three times – last week and this week – Netanyahu appeared on the “Open Studio” program of Likud TV, aka Channel 20, and for an hour answered questions from the presenter, Boaz Golan (who manages to look more ridiculous and foolish than the original host, Sadeh), and from the folks at home. The show is aired via Facebook and Twitter, the headlines are broadcast and quoted where needed, and the aim is achieved perfectly. For free.