Analysis

To Defeat Gantz, Netanyahu Instructs His Party to Lie

The rise of Moshe Feiglin's extremist, albeit pro-pot party overshadowed an otherwise dull week of campaigning, featuring Bibi's battles with supermodels

Yossi Verter
Yossi Verter
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Illustration: Netanyahu's favorite Likud politicians pose for a photo while Miri Regev watches from afar and Moshe Feiglin hovers above with a joint.
Illustration.Credit: Leo Altman
Yossi Verter
Yossi Verter

The election campaign entered the catatonic stage this week. It’s not yet moribund, surprises are still possible, but it seems to be revolving around a whole bunch of nothing. The document outlining the most serious suspicions ever leveled against a serving prime minister has been hurled into the outer reaches of public discourse. It is just one more ingredient in the stew of empty slogans, dreary campaigning, self-serving photographs and Twitter battles between a supermodel and the prime minister.

Political figures of bygone days are being disinterred: Menachem Begin has been dragged into the campaign of Moshe Kahlon and his Kulanu party; Rabbi Ovadia Yosef sparkles on the same Shas billboards where party leader Arye Dery’s picture doesn’t appear. Of the big parties, Likud looks to be most focused on the target. Benjamin Netanyahu told members of the Likud Knesset faction in Jerusalem this week that he, “your faithful servant who has a bit of experience in these things,” is running the campaign himself, in terms of both advertising and on the ground.

Likud’s campaign headquarters is being managed by young people. “A spokesperson who’s over 30 is of no interest,” Netanyahu told the MKs at the meeting, at the Menachem Begin Heritage Center. He asked Yonatan Orich, a new-media whiz, to stand up. How old are you, he asked. I’m 32, Orich replied.

The fieldworkers are under the direction of Immigration Minister Yoav Gallant, who only recently joined Likud. It’s so typical of Netanyahu to empower someone who is new – who doesn’t really know the ropes, who will be dependent on him, whose familiarity with the party’s rank-and-file is minimal compared to the mileage racked up by veteran ministers.

This is what’s known in Likud parlance as the “socks system”: Netanyahu takes a new pair of socks and promotes them at the expense of the old merchandise. But as soon as they start to smell, he will thrust them to the back of the drawer and look for new ones.

Every minister or senior Likud figure who is interviewed these days on radio, television or online undergoes an intensive preparatory briefing from Netanyahu. He has all the time in the world. He demands that they reiterate his lies and campaign falsehoods – like the one about how Kahol Lavan leader Benny Gantz participated in a concert in memory of Hamas terrorists. “Listen, it wasn’t exactly like that,” said one person who was briefed by the premier. “It doesn’t matter,” Netanyahu growled. “Let him defend himself, let him deny it.”

Bibi is focused and sharp as only he knows how to be, a member of the Likud faction told me this week. At the meeting of the party’s MKs, Anat Berko suggested playing up the “extremely polarized views between right and left within Kahol Lavan.” Netanyahu blew his stack. “No way! Absolutely not! Don’t even mention the word ‘right.’ Only left, left, left,” he bellowed.

Damage control

The prime minister has no feelings when it comes to election campaigns; he’s as functional and emotionless as a robot. Personal relationships, as far as he’s capable of having them, are meaningless. Definitive proof of that is found in the group photo that was taken on the roof of the Menachem Begin Heritage Center in Jerusalem following the faction meeting. Netanyahu placed Gideon Sa’ar close to him, to his left, with Yisrael Katz to his right. Flanking them on the sides were Nir Barkat (aka “new sock”), Gilad Erdan, Gallant and Yuli Edelstein. Two people who should have been part of the photo-op, according to their positions on the slate – Yariv Levin and Miri Regev – weren’t invited.

Netanyahu is for the most part oblivious of Regev, although he probably feels a certain contempt for her. But Levin is the last person he’d want to hurt. Both took it hard. We can surmise the reason for the exclusion. At the meeting, Netanyahu stated that there are voters, who could potentially account for two or three Knesset seats, who are wavering between Kahol Lavan and Likud. We have to keep them on our side, he said – two who switch sides creates a gap of four. Simple arithmetic. That could be critical.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shakes hands with Culture Minister Miri Regev at a Likud faction meeting, October 2018.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shakes hands with Culture Minister Miri Regev at a Likud faction meeting, October 2018.Credit: Emil Salman

The participants in the group photo, and even the order in which they were posed to Netanyahu’s right and left, translates this strategy into the language of the campaign. The six who were chosen are perceived (both in the public consciousness and in in-depth surveys commissioned by Netanyahu) as more sane faces of Likud than those who put off the target audience of center-right voters.

Regev is certified trouble; no more need be said. Levin is an affable person, but in his views – and certainly in his attitude toward the judicial system – he could easily be a member of the far-right Union of Right-Wing Parties, headed by Rafi Peretz and Bezalel Smotrich. Keeping Regev and Levin out of the group picture, taken against a spectacular Jerusalem backdrop, was an unavoidable necessity.

I asked the bureaus of the two ostracized Likudniks for a comment. A spokesperson for Tourism Minister Levin offered a laconic, even icy, response: “Minister Levin is taking an active and meaningful part in the Likud campaign to help effect an election victory.”

The reply of Culture Minister Regev’s spokesman was illuminating. What’s there to respond about, he asked. There was a photograph, she wasn’t there. That’s all.

Even so, I persisted. She’s in the sixth position on the party slate, ahead of both Gallant (No. 8) and Barkat (No. 9), and she’s also a woman. Isn’t it odd?

“It wasn’t something that was planned in advance,” the spokesman replied. “They just stood there and had their picture taken, and she wasn’t there. It’s like asking why [Yitzhak] Rabin or Levi Eshkol or Moshe Dayan weren’t in the famous photo of the Paratroopers at the Western Wall in the Six-Day War. They weren’t there, so they weren’t photographed. It wasn’t intentional, everything is fine.”

It was planned and it was intentional, very intentional, and so was Netanyahu’s directive to the campaign this week to minimize Regev’s media interviews in the three-plus weeks until the election.

Smoke gets in their eyes

Moshe Zalman Feiglin is the best thing to have happened to Likud.His Zehut party has become the main draw for voters who are fed up with Netanyahu and, were it not for this new star shining in the national political skies, might be inclined to switch to parties in the other bloc. Not necessarily to Kahol Lavan, even to the left of that party. At the moment, they’re being kept in the fold by Feiglin and his Cheshire-cat smile.

Many people see in Zehut what Kulanu was in 2015: a simpatico center-right party in which even left-wingers can feel comfortable. The thirst for “meaningful content,” as Feiglin puts it, together with the disgust at mildewed politicians and old politics that surfaces every few years, is turning the messianic, ultra-right settler from Karnei Shomron into a pop idol.

About half of his supporters are young, secular men. They come from two edges of the political map, from Meretz to the Otzma party of Michael Ben Ari and Itamar Ben-Gvir. More than one-third of them are first-time voters. Either they were underage in 2015, or they couldn’t find anyone to vote for. Now they’ve discovered the messiah, and – can you believe it? – he’s a pothead!

Feiglin is running a masterful campaign. He projects freshness alongside seriousness, boldness wedded to gravitas. That’s a privilege of a niche party that’s not shackled by the managerial rules of a big party. The idea of legalizing light drugs, which has been part of Meretz’s platform for years, is now attributed exclusively to Feiglin: He’s managed to appropriate it.

But this comes as no surprise. When Meretz leader Tamar Zandberg performs the tired old ceremony of making a pilgrimage to the Muqata in Ramallah to see Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, she projects the old politics – the politics of the 1990s. What Israeli votes for the Muqata? When Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked declaim, like a broken record, “Bennett for the Defense Ministry, Shaked for the Justice Ministry” – people are bored from the first syllable.

Where’s the beef? Where’s the substance? Bennett’s shameful assertion this week – “We will eradicate Hamas and defeat the High Court of Justice” – is a desperate cry for attention. In 2013, he and his sidekick marketed themselves successfully with the slogan “Something new is beginning.” Now they look old-fashioned, irrelevant. They’ve aged in office. Similarly, “Bibi or Tibi” – referring to MK Ahmad Tibi – is a recycled, racist slogan that won’t generate a single vote. At best, it may bolster those who in any case intended to vote Likud. The smell of mothballs arises from these slogans.

The Feiglin phenomenon is one of those subterranean currents that the polls discern belatedly, like the Pensioners Party in 2006. As of today, Zehut is the only party that’s stirring a lively, heated dialogue in the social networks. Masses of young voters and hordes of undecided ones are huddling around it, checking it out. The momentum is definitely in Zehut’s favor.

Zehut Chairman Moshe Feiglin at a party event in Be'er Sheva, March 5, 2019. The slogan behind him reads "Being a free Jew."
Zehut Chairman Moshe Feiglin at a party event in Be'er Sheva, March 5, 2019. The slogan behind him reads "Being a free Jew."Credit: \ Eliyahu Hershkovitz

Greedy, envious arms are being stretched out toward the legalization of cannabis, as if it were a generations-long dream and the very foundation of our existence. From Netanyahu to Labor leader Avi Gabbay. Only Kahol Lavan, which has prematurely aged, hasn’t yet formulated a stand on this issue.

The intensifying dialogue about the plant that Feiglin wants “to liberate,” as his campaign slogan says, is empowering him. The chief fomenter of that empowerment is Netanyahu. This week he turned over a new leaf with regard to the cannabis cause, and announced, with a cagey smile, that he’s looking into the subject and that we’ll hear from him soon.

Perhaps it slipped his mind, or maybe he didn’t notice, but in the past two years the Ministry of Public Security under Gilad Erdan sponsored a non-criminalization law. It will come into effect on April 1 and effectively expresses the position of the government and the ruling party on the cannabis issue: total opposition to any legalization, along with more consideration and leniency on the part of the enforcement bodies toward private consumers at home.

With 25 days left in the campaign, and in the absence of security-related escalation in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, Feiglin looks as though he’s going to be the October surprise of April 2019.

Whereas Netanyahu believes, with considerable justification, that Zehut is part of his bloc – whether prior to his hearing before the attorney general, or after – on the left, panic reigns. If Feiglin wins five-six seats, two-three of them could come from the left side of the map. That’s a statistic that can tip the balance in an election.

“Suckers don’t die, they only change their vote,” a left-wing leader told me in despair this week. “Our voters will help Bibi form the most extreme, racist and benighted government that has ever come to power in Israel. What Feiglin is doing to our left-wingers is the political equivalent of a pyramid scheme. Trust them to fall into that trap. For some reason, it never happens to right-wingers.”

Free radical

In the innumerable interviews Feiglin gave this week, after a poll conducted by Haaretz showed his party winning four seats – the minimum needed to enter the Knesset – it was hard to catch him uttering anything extremist. In addition to the calm and laid-back style that’s always characterized him, the messages this time were muted, blurred.

Such messages appear in his book, “To Be a Free Jew: An Operator’s Manual for the State of Israel” (in Hebrew), which constitutes Zehut’s platform. But not even severe torture could force him to declare explicitly: opposition to LGBT rights; the aspiration for a state based on halakha (traditional Jewish law); Israeli sovereignty throughout the entire West Bank; Israel’s resignation from the United Nations; establishment of a temple on the Temple Mount; a boycott of the Olympic Games; abolition of the Oslo Accords; emasculation of the court system and legal advisers, and so on. A cornucopia of weird, disturbing, eye-popping ideas that were likely cooked up under the influence of far harder substances than cannabis.

Today Feiglin is talking sweetly about shaking up the education system, returning the Jewish state to its dispossessed citizens, massive privatization, affordable housing and fitting wages for young couples. He’s offering modern, alluring liberalism above which wafts the cloyingly sweet smoke of legal, easily available marijuana. What’s not to like?

There’s no resemblance between the Feiglin who was in Knesset on behalf of Likud in 2009, and the current version, I told him. Have you adopted a realpolitik stance? “Possibly,” he replied affably.

I imagine that in the matter of the indictments facing the prime minister, your position will not come as a surprise, I said.

“I’m not a big fan of Netanyahu,” he replied. “But on this issue, I support the Likud position that this is persecution and not law enforcement. The Netanyahu cases will not be a factor in the decisions I will make.”

Why not, I asked. Don’t the suspicions bother you? “All the prime ministers since the Six-Day War were more corrupt than he is,” asserted Feiglin, however dubiously. “Netanyahu is not corrupt. He’s hedonistic and miserly, I think very little of him, his way of life is not my way of life, but corrupt he’s not. It bothers me a lot more that non-elected circles of power can remove a prime minister whom the people elected. That endangers democracy far more than a prime minister who was given cigars or who tried to sway some media outlet in his favor.”

Never mind Netanyahu, I said to him, but can a prime minister in a country like Israel manage a criminal trial and a government simultaneously? “It’s not desirable,” he reflected aloud, “and maybe also impossible. Really, I don’t have a good answer.”

What’s your feeling when you see the prime minister talking positively and promisingly about cannabis for all? “It gives me great satisfaction,” Feiglin said. “I am the only one who is generating a dialogue and content in an election campaign that is engaged in hatred and scare tactics.”

Are you referring to hatred of the Arabs and attempts to scare others about them? “No, no,” he said, “to hatred of me and scaring people about me. Gantz says anyone but Bibi, Bibi says anyone but Gantz, and both of them say anyone but Feiglin. We’ve created national unity.”

I asked if it’s true that he said once that he would prefer to forgo a ministerial portfolio and concentrate on building up his party. “No way,” he replied. When we talked about the future coalition negotiations, he said he would demand the finance and education portfolios, and noted that he has excellent candidates for both ministries: Gilad Alpher, a senior economist, and Libby Molad, who’s in the field of education.

Hold on, I said, what about you? “We’ll see, maybe we’ll have a third portfolio,” he chuckled. Go figure.

Pocket change

Two weeks ago, I wrote in this paper about the committee in the State Comptroller’s Office that rejected, for a second time, Netanyahu’s request to raise a million shekels ($280,000) to pay for his legal defense. Rejected, he had tweeted angrily that a similar request by Ariel Sharon, who was also a serial suspect, was approved by the committee.

That was a falsehood: Sharon did not appeal to the committee. Dori Klagsbald, his lawyer during the five years in which Sharon was under investigation, replied to a question I put to him that he was paid by checks and bank transfers from his client’s account – not from a donor’s account.

That story had a sequel. The item about it appeared in Haaretz when Netanyahu’s legal team was preparing a petition to the High Court (which was submitted this past Tuesday) against the decision by the state comptroller’s panel. The timing of the item was catastrophic for the lawyers. Not only had Sharon paid out of his own pocket, but his successor, Ehud Olmert, also refrained from raising funds while he was prime minister. Two precedents that would appear to render moot the appeal to the High Court.

The prime minister called attorney Klagsbald angrily. “What did you do to me?” he railed. “What did I do?” the senior lawyer asked. Netanyahu had an interesting argument. Let’s say that Klagsbald did actually receive checks from Sharon’s bank account. But he didn’t know, and couldn’t know, what had preceded that action. Maybe the suspect from Sycamore Ranch scrounged around for funds in secret and then deposited them in his account? Netanyahu was also miffed by six words that appeared in the text and preceded Klagsbald’s response: “Contrary to the prime minister’s allegation.” Why contrary, why are you contrarian, Netanyahu fumed. Klagsbald explained to him that those words were written by me.

There’s also a claim that the prime minister insisted that the attorney amend his response to the paper, in the spirit of his narrative. The attorney declined politely to incriminate the deceased retroactively. This last account is unconfirmed.

Attorney Klagsbald responded that he does not refer publicly to conversations he has with the prime minister. A spokesperson for Netanyahu chose not to respond.