Analysis

Netanyahu's Willing to Burn Israel Down for a Couple of Knesset Seats

Final polls show that 'anything goes' is an effective campaign strategy for Netanyahu

An animated gif depicting Gantz and Netanyahu slinging mud at each other.
Amos Biderman

The next three days constitute the black hole of this election campaign. There are no public opinion polls – just rumors, tricks and massive barrages of fake news. Those who have managed so far to survive will have to outdo themselves in order not to collapse under the huge piles of garbage that will be fed to us. What will be determined in these few days is the key factor that’s been talked about since the start of the campaign: what will be the voting rate, and whose constituency will turn out in greater numbers.

The story of the election of early 2020 – part of an appallingly long book called “Yes Bibi, No Bibi” – is, in a word: negativity.

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Just as General Sherman launched his famous march to the sea during the U.S. Civil War and en route, in order to win, put to the torch everything he came across – buildings, cattle and the city of Atlanta – so Benjamin Netanyahu is doing with his scorched-earth doctrine. For one or two more Knesset seats, he’s ready to burn down the entire country.

The strategy of the late political consultant Arthur Finkelstein, to which the prime minister has subscribed for almost three decades now – namely, that the only way to win an election is by running a negative campaign – has taken over our political sphere. Things began to change in a positive sense recently, although we didn’t see its fruits in real time. The reference here is to the presentation of the forgotten Trump plan. It was on that occasion in Washington, in the face of which Benny Gantz can only stammer (this time metaphorically), that Netanyahu began to put daylight between himself and his rival regarding the pollsters’ question of who is better suited to be prime minister. The disparity, which continued to grow, helped to depress Kahol Lavan’s constituency. The blitz of animal droppings Likud launched led to a turnabout in the polls, in its favor. And what the poison fruit of the campaign to tarnish Gantz didn’t accomplish, the gifts plied on us by the American uncle and the Russian bear did. There was an infusion of vigor in a melancholy party and among a militant base, which was delighted to see its king looking to land blows on the most painful below-the-belt places.

One example of this – a fantastical, completely incomprehensible phenomenon – is how the morality issue has been turned into a weapon against Gantz and Kahol Lavan. In a normal, even slightly normal world, a party whose leader is accused of bribery and fraud, a party where one of its former ministers has just evaded trial by being granted immunity and where another senior member is about to be indicted for bribery, would have avoided discussing the judicial arena or making any allusion to it the way one flees a firestorm.

But such basic logic doesn’t work in this case. Here’s Netanyahu, with indictments in three serious criminal cases plastered on his forehead, looking straight into the cameras and demanding that Benny Gantz provide explanations about the affair involving Fifth Dimension, the company where he formerly served as board chairman, even though he is not a suspect in the case.

Then along comes Likud MK Miki Zohar and roars that “Kahol Lavan is the most corrupt party in Israel.” But forget Zohar and his ilk, whose whole existence is defined by sycophancy toward the residents of Balfour Street and by rolling out mendacious artillery to aim at their opponents: Even personalities like Avi Dichter have been dragged into the festivities. The former Shin Bet security forces chief, who once saw himself as a candidate for the premiership, has morphed from gatekeeper to court jester. He quotes a negligible “news” site, known for suspicious mudslinging, that has attributed to Gantz concealment of “genuinely embarrassing” items from his cellphone, which was supposedly hacked by the Iranians.

Thus it was that the phone campaign of April 2019 was reintroduced. Back then it was ineffective, but now this rancid stew has been beefed up with layers of filth and sexual innuendoes. Likud’s war machine has unleashed all this in stages. It began two or three weeks ago, with anonymous tweets or by means of self-styled media people. Then it was passed over to Yair Netanyahu and his cohorts, then to senior Likud figures, and finally the prime minister himself took the stage, put on a serious face and expressed “concern” that Israel was liable to get a prime minister who could be blackmailed by the Iranians.

With each and every stage, we say to ourselves that this is it, this is the limit, there’s no way Netanyahu can stoop any lower or become more pathetic. And then he presses some hidden button in the campaign elevator and pushes the discourse and us way down, to unknown floors in which the stench of sewage clouds one’s senses. But not his, of course. To him the fragrance is sublime; he delights in it.

Benjamin Netanyahu points into the distance.
Ohad Zwigenberg

The moment dear son Yair entered the realm of social media and began to spray the products of his disturbed mind every which way, we waited for Dad – an educated, knowledgeable person, a man of culture – to restrain his offspring, even a little. Ultimately, however, the father became the reflection of the son. Thus, the campaign of Gantz “as corrupt, thieving, insane, demented, extortable, sex-crazed and dangerous to the state’s security” has become the bastard grandson of a propaganda campaign wielded by Likud in the previous rounds – only worse: more violent, more brutal, less inhibited.

Last April, Netanyahu maintained some semblance of respectability and statesmanship. He left the dirty work to his Zohars and Ohanas and to his aides in campaign headquarters. In this round, he has posted a clip on Twitter documenting the too-frequent series of lapses by his rival. “What’s not right with Benny Gantz?” the husband of the “p-s-y-c-h-o-l-o-g-i-s-t” wonders – while back on Balfour there are employees who have allegedly been mentally and physically trampled by the incessant madness known as “life in the prime minister’s residence.”

A black flag of illegitimacy flies over Netanyahu’s head. Not (only) because of the indictments he faces. If, after last September, there was still room to consider establishment of a unity government with him, today that is inconceivable. Any cooperation in a coalition with Likud under his leadership would be the embodiment of befoulment. Even at the high cost of a fourth or even fifth election. And in this context it’s worth remembering: Throughout his lengthy tenure at the home, not one poll showed him personally having the support of more than half the public. His entire claim to being able to deliver victory depends on the theory of the blocs. With their diminishment, it hangs on the illegitimacy that he (and, unfortunately, not only he) ascribes to the elected representatives of the Joint List.

And yet, according to every reasonable scenario, next Tuesday morning we will find more MKs from slates that declared “anyone but Netanyahu” than those who pledged loyalty to him. This is especially likely after Avigdor Lieberman finally came out of the political closet and declared: Bibi is finished, kaput, finite la comedia. So what justification can the accused present for continued rule in that kind of situation?

Not a single day

A fourth round of voting is the likeliest outcome at the moment. This is also the working assumption of the two big parties, and not only them. The only person promising that there won’t be another election is Lieberman, but he has not revealed the formula for concocting a coalition “without Netanyahu, [Arye] Deri and [Yaacov] Litzman,” as he put it this week, or for one that won’t rely in any way, shape or form on the Joint List. Even Lieberman, the great champion of a unity government, now rejects that concept out of hand – as long as Bibi is in the picture.

The head of Yisrael Beiteinu has recently been a leading supplier of headlines and Pulitzer Prize-worthy scoops. Last Saturday, on the “Meet the Press” television show, Lieberman revealed that the director of the Mossad and the head of the Israel Defense Forces Southern Command had visited Qatar, on behalf of Jerusalem, to urge that it continue injecting money into the Gaza Strip.

He had other breaking news: The only reason Netanyahu is running in this election, our correspondent reported, is to improve his position ahead of a plea bargain. By March 17 (when his trial is set to open), he will have signed one and we’ll be free of him.

Even if that’s true – and it does make some sense – it’s not clear how Lieberman could know this. It’s more likely that he wants to reduce the motivation of potential Likud voters to show up at their polling stations.

Billboards featuring a Kahol Lavan campaign that says Netanyahu "Takes care of himself" and Gantz "Takes care of Israel."
Tomer Appelbaum

Moreover, a plea bargain on the terms Netanyahu would probably want – i.e., without a single day in prison and without a declaration of moral turpitude, thus enabling him to return to the political arena – is not on the table or even under the table. The position of the state prosecution and of the attorney general is more likely to be: imprisonment plus turpitude. What can he still use to spare himself possible incarceration? Only retroactive legislation that could stop the wheels of justice in their tracks. The chance of that is zilch, even if the improbable occurs and he garners 61 Knesset seats (Likud plus its allies) on March 2.

Passage of the “French law” (which would prevent a sitting prime minister from being prosecuted), under such circumstances, with the premier’s trial having already begun, in effect, is as realistic as the “device” former Communications Minister Ayoub Kara (who even now, after his retirement, is a refreshing and indefatigable source of innovation) imported from Russia to eliminate the coronavirus. Gideon Sa’ar, Gilad Erdan and Yuli Edelstein, and in all probability additional Likud MKs, will not support a legislative abomination like that. The most optimistic scenario for Bibi would be to form a coalition and then get used to making the trip to and from the Jerusalem District Court.

How is Netanyahu dealing with his upcoming trial in the campaign? The approach has changed: Instead of making comments about a “deep state” that is bent on his political liquidation, he has turned the process looming threateningly before him into something negligible. A minor entry on the calendar. “What I do in an hour, they don’t do in a year,” he asserts. In an interview to the freebie Israel Hayom, he tossed out the supposedly incidental remark that “it will take a year or two before the trial really begins.” In other words, we’re talking about a small, trivial procedure whose timetable will be determined by him and not his judges. And in the end, he’ll get rid of the whole nonsense as though it never happened. Obviously.

In the final stretch of the campaign, the Trump plan, mentioned earlier, and the promised imposition of Israeli sovereignty over the territories, hardly exist any longer – other, perhaps, than in pinpointed messages Likud is dispatching to the settlements. There is no annexation, there is no “deal of the century.” Only an effort to suppress the motivation of Kahol Lavan voters and floaters to turn out on Election Day – and along with that, the intensive targeting of small parts of the public with few voters: weed-smokers (the prime minister is retweeting enthusiastically messages from cannabis activists), farmers, taxi drivers, Druze, Ethiopians. Incidentally, regarding the latter community, Netanyahu had considered flying to Addis Ababa himself and doing a reprise of the Naama Yissachar rescue: by bringing 43 members of the Falashmura with him in his plane to Israel. In the end, he relented and sent Immigrant Absorption Minister Yoav Gallant instead.

Bibi is working on these small groups diligently, industriously, like a hungry rooster scurrying after grains scattered around the coop. You can’t but admire the spirit of combat. If Gantz had half of that, he would be in a different place today.

Indeed, it’s hard to understand the flaccidity that has gripped Kahol Lavan precisely at crunch time. Netanyahu gave the party a perfect issue to seize on when he didn’t rule out the possibility of enacting the French law (in a radio interview – before realizing his mistake and offering a retraction). They should have flooded social media, the television studios and the streets with that audio clip and then retorted “What?! No way!” – as Bibi did when responding in a TV interview to the question of whether he intended to request parliamentary immunity.

Much ado

Netanyahu’s very brief visit, on Wednesday, to a hall in Ibillin, a village to east of Haifa, was not a resounding success. Reportedly only a few dozen people, who are in any case identified as Likud supporters, showed up; the meeting was closed to the media. Netanyahu is apprehensive about being photographed with Arabs: It would annoy his electorate.

I asked a well-informed person in Likud what he was after there. Votes? Of course not, the Likudnik replied: The purpose was to try to mitigate to some degree the anger of the “sector” – Israel’s Arab population – against us. Our campaign against the Joint List in general, and against Ahmad Tibi and Ayman Odeh personally, may have helped us drag half a Knesset seat away from Kahol Lavan, but it’s liable to prompt them [Arabs] to vote in greater numbers. It’s like pouring balm on a wound that we ourselves made.

The Joint List views next week’s election as a golden opportunity to break the bank again and increase its numbers in the parliament from the present 13 MKs. An increase, as compared with the last round of voting, of 2 percent in the turnout of the Arab community is likely to add a seat and a half to the party. Combined with a decline of the same proportion in the number of Jewish voters, the Joint List could end up with a record 15-16 seats.

Two polls conducted among Israeli Arabs this week produced contradictory results: In one, the predicted turnout was marginally greater than in September (60 percent vs. 59.2 percent), but in the other, their dream came true: 64.5 percent. They’d be pleased with the average between the two.

The hemming and hawing of Kahol Lavan’s leaders about possible cooperation with the Joint List after the election (i.e., in creating a “blocking bloc”) stems from the racist atmosphere Bibi has imparted to us in the past few years. On the one hand, he himself has cooked up all kinds of deals with that very same list. On the other hand, he was never asked, for example, about his courtship of Rabbi Dov Lior, a dark and dangerous individual (due to his influence on the most extreme elements of the “hilltop youth” in the settlements). Lior has expressed his support for the book “Torat Hamelech” (The Law of the King), which permits and advocates the murder of gentiles. Lior, the spiritual leader of the Kahanist Otzma Yehudit party, is kosher, because he’s a Jew. It follows that his implicit backing for Jewish terrorism is also kosher in Netanyahu’s eyes and in the eyes of many in the right-wing religious bloc.

Ahmad Tibi.
Ohad Zwigenberg

By contrast, if Gantz agreed to meet with Joint List leader Odeh or with Tibi, head of its Ta’al faction – neither of whom have ever supported the murder of Jews because of their Jewishness – he would be crucified and slaughtered by the patriots on the right and by the media. Their demand is that Kahol Lavan commit to not attempting to form a coalition that is based on even the abstention or absence of the Israeli Arab MKs.

The tiffs between Kahol Lavan and the Joint List serve both sides. At 10 P.M. next Monday, a new leaf will be turned over. If there is a realistic possibility to create a blocking bloc that will put an end to the rule of Netanyahu, Odeh, Tibi and the others will not stand in the way. From their point of view, the supreme imperative, after enlarging their own Knesset representation, is to get rid of Bibi. “To ‘remove’ him from the WhatsApp group, and not wait for a ‘left group,’ because he doesn’t want to leave,” Tibi said to me this week.

“Those are the two most important things for us,” Tibi added. “Increasing our strength and removing Bibi. As to what happens after the election, we will decide together – after the election.”

It seems to me that the situation is pretty clear, I told him. Tibi said: “But anyone who talks about a ‘Jewish majority’ is liable to have to make do with Jewish recommenders,” meaning those who make suggestions to the president about who should form the next government. Tibi emphasized the “liable to.” It’s not an empty threat. The Joint List could bring about a situation in which Netanyahu once again gets the first crack at cobbling together a coalition, and while doing so, work to undermine any attempt to form an alternative one, amid the solidifying and strengthening of his rightist-Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) bloc.

I reminded Tibi that Yair Lapid from Kahol Lavan retracted the “Jewish majority” comment, and even apologized for it, and that he and Gantz, Moshe Ya’alon and Gabi Ashkenazi had instead chosen an alternative, newspeak, term: “Zionist majority.”

Tibi sighed: “I don’t know which term is worse. They’re both bad, because they exclude the Arab public. We don’t want to be part of the government, but we definitely want to exert influence. And besides,” he added, “what does ‘Zionist majority’ mean? [United Torah Judaism’s] Agudat Yisrael and Degel Hatorah are Zionists?”