Analysis

Pivotal Battle in Gantz-Netanyahu Showdown Pits Submarine vs. Cellphone

11 comments about scandals, boycotts and media bias in an election campaign evolving from divisive to repulsive

Kahol Lavan chairman Benny Gantz speaks during a press conference, March 21, 2019.
Tomer Appelbaum

Israel’s April 9 election is entering its home stretch as a contest between submarines and cellphones. Former army commander Benny Gantz hopes that new questions about Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s role in the bribes-for-submarine scandal – aka Case 3000 - will turn the tide against his experienced rival. Netanyahu is seizing on the hacking of Gantz’s cellphone - reportedly though not undoubtedly carried out by Tehran’s cellular burglars- to insinuate that Gantz is no less than a security risk prone to Iranian blackmail.

Both tactics make sense politically. Coming on the heels of the attorney general’s declaration of intent to indict Netanyahu for corruption in three separate cases, the submarine scandal is meant to underline Netanyahu’s image as a crooked politician who thrives on payoff. The cellphone caper, for its part, is aimed at portraying Gantz as a bumbling novice whose questionable loyalties and complete lack of experience would place Israel in mortal danger.

Haaretz Weekly, Episode 19Haaretz

>> Read more: How Israel's Iran hacking scandal could ensure Netanyahu's reelection | Explained ■ Sex, lies, videotapes, foreign intervention and dirty tricks: The 2019 Netanyahu elections finally have it all | Analysis ■ Reopen the investigation into the submarine affair | Editorial 

In this crucial battle to set the agenda for the 18 days remaining before Israelis head to the polls, however, Netanyahu is at a distinct disadvantage. He has experience, cunning and ruthlessness on his side, but the fight is tilted against him.

1. On a level playing field, Netanyahu could have easily vanquished Gantz and neutralized the so-called hostile media, which, in truth, has been anything but. But in the brawl between submarine and cellphone, Netanyahu is facing mortal enemies: truth and the facts. Degraded as they may have been by the proliferation of bots, social media and fake news, the facts still matter. Not enough to win elections, perhaps, but at least to set their tone.

2. The submarine bribery affair was already in the running for the title of crime of the century, even before new reports emerged of Netanyahu’s impressive $4 million windfall from his stake in a company owned by his uncle, which was also a subcontractor for ThyssenKrupp, the German industrial giant that manufactures Israel’s Dolphin submarines. Unlike the murky details of Gantz’s Iran-Mobile affair, the submarine scandal was the subject of an intense police investigation that has already yielded 12 criminal indictments, including charges against Netanyahu’s closest aides and personal lawyer.

Despite the attorney general’s controversial decision to clear Netanyahu a-priori of any suspicion in the submarine affair, it took a leap of faith to believe that the prime minister knew nothing of the dirty deals being hatched just behind his back or of the direct link between his unilateral decisions to purchase more submarines and missile boats and the millions that would flow as a direct result into the bank accounts of his closest advisers. The revelation that Netanyahu may have made his own megabucks from strategic decisions he imposed on a reluctant security establishment is a severe test of faith, even for his most devout believers.

3. The exact details and circumstances of the alleged hacking of Gantz’s phone, on the other hand, remain largely unknown. Even if it was carried out by Iran, as reported, the contents of the hacked phone did not include state secrets or endanger national security. Evidence of indiscrete dalliances, which may or may not exist, could embarrass Gantz personally and may illustrate a lack of judgment, but can be easily neutralized as a basis for blackmail.

Even when the incident is seen in its worst light, Gantz committed no crime, though that hasn’t stopped Netanyahu from insinuating the exact opposite.

The media, if anything, did its best to disregard the blatant disparity between the two cases: It played Gantz’s phone flub as Watergate on steroids and studiously ignored persistent reports of Netanyahu’s personal bonanza from the submarine affair. The press was forced to change its tune and reset its priorities only because Netanyahu’s own lawyers confirmed their client’s hitherto unknown personal stake in the submarine caper in court filings pertaining to Netanyahu’s petition to allow his generous uncle to fund his legal defense in the three criminal trial awaiting him.

Even so, the affair might have been quickly reconsigned to its previous oblivion were it not for the dramatic news that the state’s chief witness in the submarine investigation, Mickey Ganor, had retracted his confessions and reneged on his plea bargain with the authorities. Whether the move, which could land Ganor a lengthy prison term, is in any way connected to Netanyahu or will have any influence on his own embroilment in the affair still remains to be seen.

On Gantz’s phone scandal, as well as on each and every one of his most minute mistakes and missteps, the media needed no prodding. It pounced on each and every morsel like starved animals on red meat, biting into Gantz’s image as well as his recent advantage in the polls. If there is a double standard at play, it is working against Gantz and in favor of Netanyahu. In American terms, with such a left wing-liberal-pinko media, who needs Fox News?

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu climbs out of a navy submarine after it arrived in Haifa Port, Israel, on January 12, 2016.
REUTERS/Baz Ratner/File Photo

4. There is an ostensibly justifiable journalistic rationale for the media’s completely counterintuitive double standard: Netanyahu’s wrongdoings, whether criminal or simply ethical, are old news. Even his most ardent fans wouldn’t dare describe him as a stickler for either honesty or integrity. Nu, news editors told themselves this week, so Netanyahu was in the thick of the submarines scandal, just as everyone suspected all along. What else is new?

Compared to Netanyahu, Gantz is a complete unknown, notwithstanding his long years in the top echelons of the army. Every new detail that comes to light about Gantz, no matter how trivial, sounds fresh enough to stop the press and to automatically occupy the main headlines. In the skewed view of a media fighting for ratings and exposure, new beats important and titillating vanquishes the serious and grave every time.

5.  Americans are painfully familiar with the syndrome. By the closing months of the 2016 election campaign, the so-called mainstream media had grown weary of recording Trump’s never-ending lies, reacting to his incessant insults or warning against his incoherent policies. But it pounced on Hillary Clinton’s and the Democratic National Committee’s trove of hacked emails and succumbed to the right-wing magnification of their gravity, relentlessly pounding the Democratic candidate all the way to her electoral defeat.

In their bid to appear “balanced” and to rebuff accusations of its pro-left bias, the movers and shakers of the media world played a pivotal role in paving Trump’s way to the White House and bringing the U.S. to the point it is today.

6. Similar dynamics have influenced the Israeli media’s coverage of the Israeli election campaign. It too has grown weary of the bottomless pit of Netanyahu’s steady cascade of chicanery. Consciously or otherwise, Israeli journalists are also bending over backwards to refute Netanyahu’s allegations of its bias. And their publishers and owners are keenly aware of the risk of incurring the wrath of a media-hating prime minister who is widely expected to be reelected to a consecutive fourth term.

But even if the majority of journalists lean to the left – an increasingly tenuous assertion in light of the proliferation in recent years of pro-Netanyahu news outlets and the concurrent weakening of the established press – the media itself is anything but.

The majority or at least plurality of pundits and commentators may harbor leftist sympathies, but public opinion is shaped by the presentation of the hard news itself. Most Israeli news outlets, with the possible exception of Haaretz, are neither right nor left: Their one religion is populism. And when the Vox Populi is essentially and increasingly nationalist, ethnocentric and intolerant, the news outlets do their best to cater to its whims.

Which is why the media regularly gives saturation coverage to the most minute details of security issues and terror attacks but has effectively banished reports of the 52 year occupation of Palestinians from its broadcasts and pages. Were it not for its sensationalist front-to-back reporting on the blood and gore of terror attacks in the first years after the 1993 signing of the Oslo Accords and increasing disregard for the promises of peace, Netanyahu might have never squeaked by Shimon Peres in the 1996 election and Israeli history would have progressed in a totally different direction.

7. But even their alleged leftist leanings have played a role in pushing the press to scrutinize Gantz far more harshly than Netanyahu. They have few expectations of Netanyahu or the religious right that supports him, viewing both as lost cases. Gantz, on the other hand, is one of their own. He is their chosen one, their great white hope and as such, is expected to be nothing less than perfection.

Gantz’s missteps and misstatements are thus viewed under a microscope, where they grow to monstrous proportions. So while the media may shrug off Netanyahu’s dirty and destructive election campaign as more of the same, they are full of righteous indignation whenever Gantz fails to live up to their expectations, which, as could be expected, happens on a daily basis.

8. In addition to the false equivalency created by the media regarding the cellphone vs. submarine scandals, a recent case in point was the revelation of a clandestine recording in which Gantz is heard telling a private group that his commitment not to join a government headed by Netanyahu may not be as ironclad as his public statements indicate. His blanket boycott of Netanyahu, Gantz revealed, could be reappraised if the circumstances change.

The media was livid. Even though campaign promises are traditionally seen, in Israel as in many other democracies, as nothing more than trifles to be discarded once the votes are in, Gantz was pilloried for daring to imply the same. While Netanyahu has taken to lying through his teeth as if it was a physical addiction, the media is shocked by the revelation that Gantz is slowly learning the ways of normal politicians.

9. Gantz’s true crime in implying that Netanyahu isn’t completely beyond the pale wasn’t so much in his willingness to stray ever so slightly from his public utterances, but in the essence of his position itself. In emotion-charged elections that can be described as a personal referendum on Netanyahu, there is no greater sin in the eyes of his opponents than hinting of even a remote possibility of collaborating with him in the future.

This in no way negates the folly of Gantz’s statements. A candidate who went from nowhere to prime ministerial potential in record time on the back of the center-left’s yearning to banish Netanyahu from sight cannot bite the hand that feeds him by admitting that he might make do with less severe measures.

By the same token, a candidate who has been burned by the hacking of his private phone should think twice and thrice about straying from his campaign talking points without making absolutely sure that he isn’t being surreptitiously recorded.

On the other hand, if stupidity or even simple ineptitude were crimes, much of Netanyahu’s cabinet and coalition would be spending the rest of their lives in jail.

10. Finally, there is the issue itself. While the raging resentment against Netanyahu outside his right-wing bloc is a natural outgrowth of his divisive last term in office and of the hyper-polarized atmosphere of the election campaign, it is a fata morgana with an exact date of expiration: It will dissipate one minute after the elections results are known.

Of course, if Netanyahu fails to secure a right wing blocking majority, continued refusal to countenance a coalition with him is a logical strategy that might prevent him from returning to power. And if Gantz were the clear-cut winner, a proposal for Likud to enter coalition talks would be made from a position of strength - to a party demoralized by defeat that might no longer be headed by Netanyahu anyway.

According to most polls and projections, however, these are not the likeliest of scenarios. Conventional wisdom as well as clear-eyed projections hold that even if Gantz’s Kahol Lavan party does slightly better than Likud, Netanyahu will still command a right wing bloc that would allow him to form another narrow government, albeit one significantly more fanatic and intolerant than his outgoing coalition.

Netanyahu’s first preference will be to constitute just such a coalition, at almost any cost, in exchange for his potential partners’ pledge to support any measure, including personal and anti-constitutional Knesset legislation that would provide an escape from the long arms of the law.

Those demanding that Gantz make a sacred vow to keep Netanyahu at pariah distance under any and all circumstances, such as Labor leader Avi Gabbay, are essentially saying that even if Gantz has an opportunity to save Israel from an ultra-nationalist government that would endeavor to destroy the checks and balances of Israeli democracy, he should stick to his boycott of Netanyahu and fiddle while his country burns.

Such never-Bibiers ignore the fact that once the election is over, a new reality will set in and necessarily change perceptions. A choice between a coalition that could annex parts of the West Bank, destroy whatever slim chances are left for peace with Palestinians, undermine Israel’s legitimacy abroad, undermine democracy and the rule of law and hand over control of Israel’s education system to religious fanatics - and a relatively moderate Bibi-Gantz alliance that would necessarily avert all of the above would be seen by most Israelis as a no-brainer. This would include not only moderate Likud voters but most of Gantz’s supporters as well, including significant chunks of those to their left.

11. But the key to Israel’s political future might very well be hidden elsewhere, in the pockets of none other than Donald Trump, with whom Netanyahu will meet next week in Washington. Even the most pro-Israeli peace plan produced by Trump is bound to be rejected by a radical right-wing government, no matter what Netanyahu says. A more centrist Bibi-Gantz collaboration, on the other hand, could give Trump’s “ultimate peace deal” a semblance of viability, at the very least.

So while Trump is widely expected to go out of his way to intervene on Netanyahu’s behalf, his support is hardly unconditional. In many ways, Under Trump’s overt backing for Bibi will implicitly include an endorsement for his much-maligned challenger, Benny Gantz.