When workers began abseiling from the roof of Likud party headquarters in Tel Aviv, spreading a 10-story-high poster of the party’s leader smiling alongside Russian President Vladimir Putin, the immediate interpretation was that Likud would stop at nothing to attract sought-after “Russian” voters in the upcoming election. But then on another side of the building they unfurled a similar poster of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with U.S. President Donald Trump, and then a third side with Bibi alongside Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
This isn’t just a play for the “Russian” vote. In fact, it isn’t even a totally new campaign, as the pictures of Netanyahu and Trump — along with the slogan “Netanyahu. A different league” — had already featured in the previous campaign earlier this year. It isn’t like Likud to recycle.
Netanyahu’s biggest problem in the September election campaign is that he has too many targets. In previous elections, he would have one foe — or at most a competing duo — to denigrate, belittle and taint with weakness, leftism and love of Arabs. In April it was Yair Lapid and Benny Gantz, and in 2015 Tzipi Livni and Isaac Herzog. This time, however, he is facing at least five foes.
Gantz and Lapid are still there, leading the main opposition party Kahol Lavan. But Netanyahu’s most effective rival so far has been Ehud Barak, who may not be leading a party anymore but will still be Democratic Union’s main and most damaging campaigner. And that’s even before we consider Amir Peretz, who has promised to make Labor — reinforced by Orli Levi-Abekasis — a vehicle for attracting “soft” Likudniks.
For weeks, Likud has been running spots against Lapid-Gantz-Barak. But three names is too much for the smear campaign and, anyway, the real threat to Netanyahu is from within the right wing: From Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu, and Ayelet Shaked, who will lead a new broad coalition of far-right parties. They are the parties taking votes from Likud (which is already down 10 seats in most polls from the 39 it currently has with Kulanu).
Unlike one of Israel’s advanced missile defense systems, a classic Netanyahu campaign isn’t designed to deal with multiple targets. The toxic mud he flings at his adversaries gets diluted when it has to go in too many directions. For his entire career, he has motivated people to vote through fear and hatred of left-wingers and Arabs. It is one thing to make them hate Barak and Gantz for being in bed with Israel’s enemies. But to get them to simultaneously also hate Shaked and Lieberman, who are if anything worse racists, is beyond the scope of his campaign.
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So Netanyahu’s team have little choice but to go against their instincts and run a positive campaign. The “Different League” campaign, with Trump, was just a small part of what Likud did last time around. This time, it’s been expanded — at least until they figure out who the best target is for a negative campaign that they feel so much more at home with.
The choice of these three world leaders is intriguing. Trump, of course, makes sense. Israeli right-wingers love him and the president has gone out of his way to shower Netanyahu with gestures of support. Some less meaningful than others. But Putin and Modi?
The trio of allies Netanyahu has chosen in his campaign reveals what he thinks will appeal to voters, and the kind of Israel he aspires to. Placing Putin and Modi next to Trump is also a stark reminder that, as bad as the U.S. president may seem, there are still worse leaders in the world — in the shape of Putin, who has emptied Russian democracy of any meaning, and Modi, whose party has incited anti-Muslim racism in India on a level Trump has yet to even dream of.
Not only does Netanyahu take glory in being in the same league as these semi-autocrats and racists instead of Israel’s democratic allies like Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron. Intriguingly, it also looks as if he is putting Russia and India on the same footing as the United States.
It’s ironic that this is the lineup he has unveiled on the same day Israel announced it had completed its most ambitious series of test flights ever of the Arrow 3 missile defense system, together with the Americans, in Alaska. The tests underline the fact that America’s X-Band radar system, based in the Negev, will now be an integral part of Israel’s protection against Iranian missiles. But Netanyahu’s team is broadcasting that Trump is no longer enough and Israel also needs the protection of India, one of Iran’s main trading partners, and Russia, which supplies Iran with most of its weapons systems. Netanyahu is convinced Israeli voters don’t know and don’t care.
Just as Netanyahu believes pictures of him with Putin are sufficient to make Russian-born voters forget how he has disregarded their pension and other welfare concerns over the last decade, he believes Israelis in general will thrill to his friendships with the some of the world's worst people. Sadly, he may be right. That could well be Israel’s league.