Analysis

The Nasty, Racist Campaign That Will Go Down in Israel's History

If there's no breakthrough in the coming days, we will find ourselves, the morning after the election, mired deep in a political and constitutional nightmare. Will it be left to the president to save the day?

Illustration: Politicians race to a podium where Rivlin is standing with a medal.
Amos Biderman

Israel will go to the polls on Tuesday for the second time in less than five months. What was once considered inconceivable is happening to us. Theoretically, a third election is also possible, in early 2020. As long as Benjamin Netanyahu is the bone stuck deep in the throat of the body politic, holding its internal organs in a vice-like grip while fighting the battle of his life, the impasse that brought us to this pass is not going to go away.

It is because of the prime ministerial suspect, who sought to preempt the attorney general’s decision in his cases, that the public was dragged into the first election, in April. Because of the weightiness of the charges against him, he failed in his effort to form a government in May. His tremendous Ben-Gurion-like power, which works like a spell on his coalition allies, induced them to agree to commit group suicide for his sake. A collective coalition Stockholm syndrome led a captive public into yet another election campaign. When historians come to study this period, they will find it difficult to explain to their students what in the blazes happened to this intelligent nation – to this “special race,” in the words of Likud MK Makhlouf “Miki” Zohar.

It’s been a bizarre election season and a cruel summer. Until a week ago, the campaign was barely discernible. There were flashes of political flare-ups here and there, but the general feeling among the public was: Leave us alone already, for heaven’s sake.

There were no stars in this campaign. There was no particularly fascinating personality, like Moshe Feiglin in April, or Naftali Bennett and Yair Lapid in 2013, or even Moshe Kahlon in 2015. All the players were familiar from the last round, and looked faded and burned out.

The campaigns themselves were also pretty feeble and lacking in innovation. The whole business had the feel of a second and disappointing season of a TV series whose departure no one lamented. Those who did stand out were Avigdor Lieberman, who ran an effective campaign until a week or two ago, and Arye Dery, who again outdid himself in playing on the feelings of voters consumed with longings for the late Rabbi Ovadia Yosef of blessed and sainted memory. As for Netanyahu and Likud – we’ll get to them a little later.

The latest polls paint a despairing picture. Like a bad dream that recurs nightly, they do not forecast a clear-cut decision on September 17. If no electoral breakthrough occurs in the next few days (though it usually does at this stage), we will find ourselves, the morning after, mired deep in a political and constitutional nightmare.

The task of extricating Israel from this entanglement – on the assumption that the right-wing-Haredi bloc does not win the sought-after 61 Knesset seats, which is certainly a possibility, and the center-left bloc does not make a late surge forward so that it’s in a position to assemble an obstructive bloc, which is less likely – will fall on the shoulders of one person: President Reuven Rivlin. To say that Rivlin is aware with every fiber of his being of the gravity of the moment, has girded himself for it, is doing the calculations and mulling all manner of plans and ideas – would be an understatement. He is all that and much more.

Netanyahu speaks during a press conference in Tel Aviv, Sept. 10, 2019.
Oded Balilty,AP

The weeks ahead could well define Rivlin’s five years as president. In a situation of numerical deadlock between parties after the vote, the law grants him almost unlimited power to determine the identity of the next prime minister. Aware of the great sensitivity of the situation, his office has decided to maintain silence until September 18, or until the official election results are announced.

Excessive caution has never hurt anyone. Accordingly, Rivlin will avoid doing what he did as president, in the last two election campaigns: to call on the public to vote. His bureau has rejected all requests from newspaper editors and from radio and television shows for Rivlin to write an oped, record a message or appear in a video clip encouraging the public to turn out on Election Day. Why? There will always be the gadfly who will say that the president wants a high turnout to help this side, or to work against that side. He may say a couple of words when he himself votes, on Tuesday, but generally, he will hold his peace.

Clear and present danger

Netanyahu is not a guy who gives up easily, especially when his personal freedom is at stake. We saw the nadir to which he and his cohorts are capable of descending in waging the nastiest, most racist campaign ever conducted here by a movement that is not Kahane Lives. The absolute low point – to date – was the alleged “junior staffer” in the campaign who sent out a message of unadulterated racism on Wednesday, via Bibi’s official Facebook account, in the name of the prime minister about “the Arabs” – not Syrians or Hezbollah, but rather Israeli citizens – “who want to annihilate us all – women, children and men.” It would be interesting to know whether the name of the junior fellow who was “reprimanded,” according to a campaign headquarters spokesman, is someone by the name of Yair. There is someone with a name like that who’s wandering around, whose status at headquarters is as high as his morality is low.

On Thursday, Facebook Israel announced that it was suspending Likud’s campaign (Netanyahu’s bot, to be more precise), because of a violation of the company’s policy barring incitement and hate messages. For 24 hours, that is. Too little, too late, as befits the slipshod media giant. The message was disseminated, reached its destination and was received; mainstream media outlets also dealt with it extensively. Which was the exactly what the Likud staffer intended.

The plunge to the bottom of the sewer, the dive into the depths of the morass that we’ve seen in the past few weeks – it has all come straight from the top. No pencil moves and no key on the keyboard is pressed without Bibi’s authorization. Of course that didn’t keep him from claiming, without even blushing, that he didn’t know about the Facebook post.

The Likud of 2019 seems like the realization of the fondest dreams of Meir Kahane and his present-day disciples, Bentzi Gopstein and Baruch Marzel. Even Itamar Ben-Gvir, from Otzma Yehudit, doesn’t dare express himself or lie as flippantly as the prime minister of Israel. Even the Union of Right-Wing Parties’ Bezalel Smotrich would think twice before spewing out a vile lie like, “[Iranian leader Ayatollah Ali] Khamenei said he prefers Gantz.” (Not to fear, though: If Netanyahu has to court Kahol Lavan leader Benny Gantz afterward in order to form a coalition, he’ll apologize.)

The violent hunting expedition the premier is spearheading against Keshet television’s Channel 12 and the other free media that still exist here, the courts, the attorney general and the entire law enforcement system, as well as against the “elites,” the left and Israel’s Arab population – all this attests to the depth of his desperation, the scale of his fear and to a certain degree of loss of control. But also to a contempt for every manifestation of statesmanlike, responsible behavior. In recent days he tried to put the machine of diplomacy-security back on track but then the long-awaited but contemptible last stretch of the racist campaign came along and we were reminded of what we were dealing with.

Illustration.
Eran Wolkowski

It’s not surprising that the finest progeny of the prime minister’s movement, Benny Begin and Michael Eitan – and, in previous rounds, Dan Meridor, Roni Milo, Ehud Olmert, Meir Sheetrit, Tzipi Livni and Dan Tichon – would rather cut off their hand than use it to cast a ballot for Likud under Benjamin Netanyahu. (We’ll have to wait until July 2021 to hear how the senior Herut veteran Reuven Rivlin, cast his ballot.) Begin already left once and returned, before departing for good. In a painful but detailed post that Eitan published on his Facebook page, he stated that he has never voted for any other party. Veteran, authentic Likudniks, the few who remain, will have a hard time voting for this incarnation of the party. It’s clear that Netanyahu understands this. In their place, he prefers to try to convince supporters of Otzma Yehudit to fall into his arms. For him, voters are like the money that he is so reluctant to waste. It has no smell.

Never in the 71 years of the quite successful Zionist enterprise has Israel had a leader as dangerous as Netanyahu. If he gets a renewed mandate, in both party and party-bloc terms, to form the next government – he will be able to claim, and justifiably from his perspective, that the nation has said “No!” to putting him on trial. At the same time, it’s not clear how far he is capable of going in order to try to hold onto the reins of power, in the event he doesn’t get a mandate from the public or from the president.

Rule for Bibi is not only the clout and the Balfour Street residence and life at the public’s expense, in Jerusalem or in his Caesarea villa. Being in power is parliamentary immunity and a defensive shield against indictment for bribery, fraud and breach of trust, which are very likely to be filed before the end of the year. Governance, for him, is life itself, in the most existential sense.

His strategy has three possible tiers: to create a bloc of 61-62 Knesset seats one way or another, whether with or without defectors from the other side of the river; to bring 60 MKs, a number that would be a barrier to the formation of a government not led by him and would keep him in the game; for Likud to win more than 35 seats, and thus overpower Kahol Lavan, which would probably quell the flames of rebellion against him within his own party, which are now flickering in the dark, hidden under a hermetically sealed Iron Dome.

Any result that is below these figures, such as those being predicted in the latest polls, in which Likud isn’t getting more than 31-32 seats and the whole bloc garners 57-58 at the most – would be apocalyptic for Bibi.

Three’s a crowd

The story in this election is a double one: the turnout rate, which if it is less than last time around will totally screw up the data from the surveys and could destroy any of the parties on the electoral margins – and give a disproportional advantage to other parties, for example, the ultra-Orthodox ones; and the 260,000 right-wing voters who in April cast their ballot for parties that didn’t garner 3.25 percent of the votes – equivalent to four seats – needed to enter the Knesset, namely, Hayamin Hehadash, Zehut and Gesher. Some 240,000 of those votes went to the first two, and Orli Levi-Abekasis’ party received about 20,000. In this round, however, they’re back in the game. The majority will vote for right-wing parties on Tuesday and represent the seven lost seats, on the right. (Well, not exactly, because three have ended up in Likud under the rules of the Bader-Ofer law, which deals with the “leftover” votes and favors the big parties.)

Otzma Yehudit is hovering between failure and the four seats that will put Ben-Gvir into the government and maybe even the security cabinet, as leader of a party. If Otzma Yehudit does pass the electoral threshold, Netanyahu will almost certainly have the 61 lifesaving seats in reach. The coalition negotiations with Ben-Gvir, however, will make him nostalgic for Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked.

Yamina, in which the latter two are running – along with Smotrich the racist and Rafi Peretz the messianic – again finds itself losing oxygen in the last weekend of the campaign. “We feel like a suitcase on a baggage carousel at Ben-Gurion airport,” they say. “Totally lacking control over what’s happening.”

They have always had an iron-clad rule in Yamina, and before that in Hayamin Hehadash, which didn’t cross the electoral threshold in April, and before that in Habayit Hayehudi. This “rule of three” is giving them sleepless nights. Literally. From 2013 until this past spring, Likud’s sister party systematically received about three fewer parliamentary seats than what were predicted in the final polls (which, in the case of next week’s election, are out today, Friday). In 2013, the surveys forecast 16 seats and they got 12; in 2015 the polls said 11, they ended up with eight; and in April it was roughly the same routine. It was very disappointing, but not surprising: The six seats predicted for Hayamin Hehadash turned out to be four seats on paper, minus 1,400 votes – leaving Bennett and Shaked out in the cold.

When Shaked was chosen to head Yamina, the party leaped to 13 seats in the polls; right now it’s at about eight or nine. You do the math. We’ll only note that three weeks ago, this column quoted Netanyahu as saying, in a private forum, “After I get through with her [Shaked], she’ll only have seven seats.” Even that might have been optimistic – or pessimistic, depending on your point of view.

The Kahol Lavan leadership (the “cockpit”) near the Gaza border.
Elad Malka

Signs of life

There are some who say and write that Gantz, Yair Lapid, Moshe Ya’alon and Gabi Ashkenazi – the top four in Kahol Lavan – do not offer an alternative to Netanyahu. That they are more of the same: three generals and a militarist sergeant. That sort of foolishness is heard only among voters for the Joint Arab List, and even then not from all of them – just those from its Balad wing. Nothing like that is heard from Ayman Odeh or Ahmad Tibi, of Hadash-Ta’al. On their worst days, the Kahol Lavan quartet, even with all its faults and internal problems, and almost erotic desire to be with Likud in the next government, did not descend even one-tenth of the way down to the ugly level to which Likud has sunk.

The past month has seen a rejuvenation of the cockpit’s campaign. Gantz is doing better in interviews. His campaign staff is being managed in orderly fashion, all in all, in the face of the frenetic hysteria of the other side, as seen in the latter’s two recent “dramatic announcements,” both of which turned out to be yet more mendacious and cynical blasts of hot air.

First, on Monday, came the photo from Israeli intelligence’s cold storage of a nuclear facility in Abadeh, Iran, that hasn’t been active for some time. The the next day, Netanyahu announced his intention to annex to the state the Jordan Valley and the northern Dead Sea region if he’s elected. Behind him was a map of the area in question, riddled with errors. Apparently, the same above-mentioned junior staffer had managed to sneak into the most secure and heavily guarded room in the country and embarrass the prime minister.

Later that evening Bibi was forced off the stage in Ashdod. A terrorist organization in the Gaza Strip had decided to rain rockets on his parade in the seaside city, an event that was broadcast live via his Facebook account. Kahol Lavan leaped at the opportunity that came their way. Leaped too high. Sometimes it’s better to say nothing, especially when the images speak so powerfully.

The sounding of a missile alert in the middle of the prime minister’s public appearance, driving him and his audience to take refuge in a secure space, wasn’t a “national snafu,” as Naftali Bennett tweeted and as Gantz and Ashkenazi snorted. It was a personal embarrassment for a leader who promised a decade ago to eradicate terrorism, and it was a PR disaster. The real national humiliation here derives from the fact that this is what the lives of tens of thousands of people who live in communities bordering the Gaza Strip – and at times also in Sderot and further north, in Ashkelon and Ashdod – have been like for the past decade. Most of them will still probably go vote Likud. Why? “Only Bibi.” That’s why.

Gantz won’t say so aloud, but he’s running his campaign with one hand tied behind his back, and it’s killing him. The necessity to bring every central issue that comes up to the cockpit for discussion makes it hard to take quick decisions. Lapid’s insistent, childish refusal to forgo the agreement with Gantz on rotating the prime ministerial position (after two years) is a genuine drawback. “Yair is head-butting the wall,” key people in Kahol Lavan say. “He’d rather lose for a fourth time – anything but change his mind.”

This weekend the foursome will decide what to do about Labor-Gesher. Should they launch an assault on the rival party, or what’s left of it, and with what intensity? It’s a problem. It’s hard to know where the “cannibalism” should stop. Gantz and his colleagues would be happy to reduce Labor-Gesher to four seats. But with the polls only showing them with five or six, the result could be that the party won’t cross the electoral threshold, which would mean a loss of three seats for the center-left bloc (again, according to the rules of the Bader-Ofer law). In April, the final surveys published gave Labor under Avi Gabbay nine to 10 seats, and they ended up with six.

You do the math.