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Netanyahu’s Trumpian Election Strategy: Division, Diversion, Derision and Defamation

Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev
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Benjamin Netanyahu tours Nahariya, in northern Israel, January 12, 2020.
Benjamin Netanyahu tours Nahariya, in northern Israel, January 12, 2020.Credit: Rami Shllush
Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev

Now that the dust is settled, ploys and plots exhausted, parties merged, amalgamated or going their separate ways and the final lists of candidates have been submitted – Israel’s election campaign is finally under way. Benjamin Netanyahu has 46 days to wield his black magic, retain his office and crown his last-ditch efforts to successfully escape the long arm of the law.

Netanyahu's opponents will try to focus on his criminal indictments and ensuing campaign to undermine Israel's legal authorities. The prime minister will do his best to focus on his vast experience, alleged achievements and international stature – with only occasional skirmishes, when the need arises, against the rule of law.

Haaretz Weekly Ep. 56

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The convening of the Yad Vashem World Holocaust Forum next week provides Netanyahu with a golden opportunity to flex his diplomatic muscles. The arrival of 30 world leaders, including Russia’s Vladimir Putin, will allow him to hobnob with the powerful, show off his experience and expertise and herald upcoming breakthroughs. His chief rival Benny Gantz has been lobbying for access to similar audiences, but even if arranged, it will seem largely ceremonial. Gantz is at risk of being cast as a hanger-on, or as they say in far more cutting Yiddish, a noch-schlepper.

At times, Netanyahu will be at cross-purposes with his own aims, as his bid for immunity illustrates. Not only did Netanyahu violate his own explicit pledge on the eve of the September election not to seek immunity, his request diverted public and media attention away from tensions with Iran following the assassination of Iranian general Qassem Soleimani. President Trump’s decision to assassinate Soleimani, hitherto Israel’s public enemy number one, was seen as a feather in Netanyahu’s cap.

Given the slim chances that the Knesset will accede to his immunity request, it’s no wonder that Netanyahu is reportedly considering withdrawing it. Such a move, however, would expose the prime minister to even greater dangers: The moment he withdraws his request for immunity or it is rejected by the Knesset, Netanyahu’s indictment will be formally submitted to the Jerusalem District Court. He will officially be deemed a criminal defendant – not the best posture for a politician who is asking the public to return him to office nonetheless.

But desperate times for desperate prime ministers call for desperate measures. If Netanyahu perceives that his campaign is failing to undercut the severity of the charges brought against him, he will unleash his doomsday weapons on the electorate. Israel would then face one of the most divisive and explosive election campaigns in its history, commensurate with the fateful decision it is being called upon to make.

Netanyahu’s most trustworthy and time-tested instruments are sowing incitement and strife. He will try to spark distrust and discord between right and left, Jews and Arabs, religious and secular, Ashkenazim and North African Jews, so-called “elites” and the “common people.” To counteract the largely negative public reaction to his indictments, Netanyahu will deploy his most effective diversion: tribalism.

Always the agile alchemist, Netanyahu will transform his criminal charges into an instrument of oppression and an indictment against the establishment. He will cast himself as a Jesus-type martyr suffering for the masses. The attorney general’s indictments may contain heaps of incriminating evidence but their true purpose is to allow liberal elites to regain control of an Israel they think is theirs to own. If you don’t vote for me, Netanyahu will tell wavering right-wingers, you will be voting against yourself.

The starkly clear political delineation of the array of major parties that submitted their lists to the Knesset this week, along with the widening polarization of politics in general, will make Netanyahu’s task easier. With the overwhelming majority of religious Jews in his camp, Netanyahu can easily portray his rivals as anti-Jewish crusaders. With the Likud’s reputation as the political home of North African Jews, Netanyahu can quickly rekindle old grievances and depict legal authorities as Ashkenazi plants conspiring to depose him in order to take away everything that North African Jews have achieved.

The polls will determine the intensity and toxicity of Netanyahu’s campaign. The weaker his performance, the more he will resort to his unique expertise in derision and defamation. Kahol Lavan’s caste of rough and gruff former generals will be portrayed as weak-kneed, Arab-loving traitors, the Joint List as active terrorists and the leftist union between Labor and Meretz as a reincarnation of the old, bigoted, oppressive Ashkenazi and widely reviled Mapai.

Trump and Netanyahu give a joint press conference in 2017.Credit: Marc Israel Sellam

In many ways, Netanyahu’s situation and expected responses are an Israeli-style mirror of Trump’s predicament and established modus operandi. Over the next few months, as the U.S. election campaign gets underway, Trump will be facing an impeachment trial in the Senate, which he will do his utmost to diminish as baseless and to inflate as the crime of the century.

Like Netanyahu, Trump will aggrandize his own achievements, regardless of whether his boasts are based on facts, such as the performance of the U.S. economy, or on fantasy, such as his handling of international affairs and his claim that “America is respected again.”  But Trump is the last to rest on his real or invented laurels: Mud-slinging and conspiracy theorizing are more his game.

Like Netanyahu, Trump dismisses the mounting evidence of his malfeasance in the aid-for-dirt on Joe Biden Ukraine affair as fake. He depicts his Democratic accusers in the House of Representatives as alternatively dim, crazy, disloyal or all of the above. And he repeatedly asserts, almost word for word, Netanyahu’s claim that the true aim of the impeachment is to depose him without an election and to deprive “true Americans” of everything they have gained under his benevolent rule.

Both Netanyahu and Trump see themselves as singular figures on the world stage and as instruments of historic change in their countries. Both have developed symptoms of what can only be described as acute megalomania, deeming themselves above mortals and their restrictive laws. Both seem willing to burn down their own houses in order to exempt themselves from answering for their alleged crimes.

In Netanyahu’s case, at least, it is an uphill battle but far from a mission impossible. Like Trump, he has mastered the art of social media manipulations that skirts not only the mainstream media, but also the facts themselves. Like Trump, Netanyahu owes his past electoral successes to a mix of cunning, venality and utter lack of self-imposed limits or boundaries. Like Trump, Netanyahu pays lip service to being the leader of “all the people.” In practice, both leaders play to their own galleries by deriding, defaming and delegitimizing their opponents.

In a world governed by facts, decency, rationality and the rule of law, neither Trump nor Netanyahu would stand a chance of reelection. Both, however, have already distorted reality, upended values, spread division, fomented hate and corrupted the soul of a large chunk of their public to such an extent that reality, as we once knew it, may no longer exist.

Netanyahu is now gearing up for the most ambitious and consequential election campaign of his career. He will have to mesmerize enough Israelis to believe that white is black, good is bad, the law is criminal and criminals are saints. It is a measure of the general meshugas that he stands a good chance of success, as does his friend and mentor, Donald Trump.

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