Wednesday was a difficult day for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s media outriders. Usually they have a clear set of messages which they are instructed to disseminate to the public in interviews and on their social media platforms. But for once the master manipulator and media manager was stumped and the proxies didn’t have a line to spin.
Netanyahu had already decided to request parliamentary immunity from prosecution. It was a no-brainer for him. The alternative was to have the upcoming election campaign overshadowed by the legal proceedings: The filing of the indictments with the Jerusalem District Court, a date set for the initial hearings, both sides making their opening statements, all while Netanyahu is fighting his most crucial election battle ever.
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By requesting immunity Netanyahu hopes to postpone all of this until after the March 2 election. But he knows from all the incessant polling he has carried out that this is a hard sell, even among his right-wing base. In recent days, he tried to float his “immunity is a cornerstone of democracy” canard, but it didn’t fly.
The tame political analyst Yaakov Bardugo – who can be relied upon to toe the line – spoke on Army Radio Wednesday, flailing around to find the best justification for immunity. But he didn’t even know by that point for certain if Netanyahu was going to go through with it. How could he mount a defense of the move without a clear steer from above? And he wasn't the only one struggling. Senior Likud ministers were in the dark as well. In the hours before Netanyahu’s announcement, both Yisrael Katz and Yoav Galant, who can usually be counted upon to explain and defend his moves, were forced to admit they didn’t know what to say.
Forty minutes before the announcement, one of Netanyahu’s spokespeople launched a three-tweet thread on Twitter, attacking Kahol Lavan Chairman Benny Gantz for not having been a particularly bright general and having only been promoted to the position of military chief of staff by default, after other candidates fell by the wayside. Netanyahu’s smear artists didn’t have anything to say about the immunity, so they resorted to sliming his rivals instead.
When Netanyahu finally appeared at his 8 P.M. press conference it was one of his worst performances to date: No clear narrative, no overarching theme, and no soundbites. It wasn’t one of his usually meticulously planned speeches but rather a garbled eleven-minutes peroration which began with the bizarre claim that in the last decade Israel had become one of “the eight world power” and promises of more “incredible achievements.” Then came a diatribe about how “my friends on the left” don’t care about Israel’s achievements, only about superfluous things like putting corrupt politicians on trial. This was followed by more reheated complaints of how he is the victim of a court martial and the only person in history to be put on trial for “favorable coverage.”
As for the immunity, he tried to claim that he wasn’t actually seeking immunity, and that he fully intends “to go to court and smash the false allegations.” And yet, in one short sentence, he admitted that he was actually asking for immunity – but just for one term and only because it was his duty as the people’s representative to protect himself from persecution. He didn’t even say he was asking for immunity. In one brief sentence, he quickly announced that he would be using his rights under the relevant clause in the law.
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In the garbled explanation, Netanyahu failed to say why one term of immunity would be enough and why after that he would no longer be at risk from the false allegations. He was by then smearing Gantz and Kahol Lavan co-leader Yair Lapid for their alleged crimes, which of course have not been investigated, and capped off with a few more vague promises of “great achievements” in the future.
Then he left, without answering questions. Now Netanyahu is not only Israel's first serving prime minister to be indicted, but the first serving prime minister officially trying to evade justice.
Netanyahu knows that the best he can hope for is damage control. In a lose-lose situation, he chose the option which he believes gives him the most time to move the news agenda onwards before Israelis go to the polls. As prime minister of a country in a flammable region, he will have ample opportunity to do so. Few if any politicians have his knack for shifting and shaping media cycles. But he is starting to lose his touch, and Kahol Lavan is getting better at dictating events. The immunity question, or as Gantz put in his television appearance immediately after Netanyahu’s, “the state of Israel or the Kingdom of Netanyahu,” is the perfect issue for the opposition to campaign on.
Netanyahu’s hope to put the matter to bed until after the election could backfire badly, especially if the opposition parties mount a legal challenge that may dominate the weeks to come before the election and prevent the assembly of a Knesset House Committee that has to discuss whether he should be granted immunity. And then Netanyahu will probably lose the vote anyway. Six days ago, he won the Likud primary by a landslide and felt he had momentum going in to the general election campaign. His plans are already going badly awry.