Israel Election: Amid Dirty Campaign, Netanyahu Shows His True Rival Is Still the Justice System

With Israel election Monday, Netanyahu, whose Likud was gaining momentum, sent an implicit threat to his judges in front of the cameras. Can it wake Gantz voters up?

Yossi Verter
Yossi Verter
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Benjamin Netanyahu at an election rally in Ramat Gan, Israel, February 29, 2020. The screen behind him shows rival Benny Gantz sitting with Joint List leaders Ayman Odeh (L) and Ahmad Tibi (R).
Benjamin Netanyahu at an election rally in Ramat Gan, Israel, February 29, 2020. The screen behind him shows rival Benny Gantz sitting with Joint List leaders Ayman Odeh (L) and Ahmad Tibi (R).Credit: Tomer Appelbaum
Yossi Verter
Yossi Verter

The most important statement in the series of interviews with party leaders Saturday was not said in a political context. Perhaps it was hubris, under the influence of the opinion polls, which show that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is supposedly close to a victory that would be no less than amazing; and perhaps it was just a miscalculation on live TV. In any case, what the indicted Netanyahu told “Meet the Press” was terrifying. When he was asked about his upcoming trial, he reiterated the statement that he respects the court, but then said: “They say the judges chosen for me are members of the left wing. Now the burden of proof is on them.”

After repeating the names “[Benny] Gantz and [Ahmad] Tibi” a dozen times, suddenly he let slip the key sentence above. This reminds us of what this election is really about: the image of Israel, its identity and character as a democratic country, in which everyone is equal before the law. The 61 Knesset seats that Netanyahu is seeking – and perhaps will capture if the trend of the past few days continues until tomorrow – will give him the axe to crush the spine of what’s left of the cowering, threatened and frequently attacked justice system.

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The comparison of Netanyahu to the Turkish dictator Recep Tayyip Erdogan, which Kahol Lavan has made, sounds extreme and irrelevant. But one thing can’t be denied. Even if Netanyahu had boundaries, we saw him push them back and erase them time after time in recent years. This is true in both the legal realm and the political one.

Netanyahu’s conduct in the election campaigns, particularly the one ending on Sunday, is more sad evidence of this. Such a sentence, the mood that causes him to openly threaten his judges, on camera no less, is pure Erdoganism – mafia in the true sense. Actually, it’s not mafia. Even the heads of crime organizations wouldn’t dare talk like that.

To borrow a well-known term from the Sicilian mafia, we can say, sadly, that Israel today is a Cosa Balfour. Over the weekend we witnessed the operation behind the leaked recording of Yisrael Bachar, Kahol Lavan leader Benny Gantz’s campaign strategist, criticizing his boss. The man who made the recording, a rabbi who held “heart-to-heart talks” with Bachar, maneuvered him until he got him to the desired key statements. He did so while in his pocket, next to his ritual fringes, was a recording device. That rabbi, by the name of Guy Habura, is said to be close to Netanyahu’s lawyer Amit Hadad. And in an amazing coincidence, Netanyahu himself met with the rabbi a day before the broadcast of the recording, when Netanyahu happened to have been in Habura’s yeshiva.

Rabbis aren’t what they used to be: They come and go from prison, they steal and cheat and blackmail and commit sex crimes, and they threaten and send out thugs. Everything in the name of the Lord, of course.

Innocent people, sometimes foolish, who find themselves in distress, are sometimes tempted to come to them for advice. That is what led Bachar to the rabbi.

In the relevant part of the recording, Habura is heard entrapping Bachar (“my beloved”) into saying that Gantz is afraid to attack Iran and that not striking would be a danger to Israel. If the Rabbinate was bound by some ethical code, Habura would be immediately stripped of his title. Perhaps he would find work as a police snitch.

After the Bachar recording was broadcast on Thursday, heads of the Shin Bet security service and the Mossad began to pop up. Most of them have worked with Netanyahu as prime minister during his accumulated 14 years at the post. They all warned against him. Iran is the realm of the Mossad, and for some reason no living Mossad chief has a good word to say about the prime minister of Israel. The late, legendary agency head Meir Dagan left us a clear last will and testament with regard to Netanyahu years ago, and it was no less harsh.

According to all the opinion polls, Likud has gained momentum at the last, critical bend, while Kahol Lavan is enmeshed in a kind of perfect storm: Unsuccessful interviews by Gantz over the past week, recordings of fellow party leader Gabi Ashkenazi, the investigation of Gantz’s former company Fifth Dimension, the Bachar tempest and the latest mishap in terms of the chronology, a statement by Labor-Gesher-Meretz head Amir Peretz that he and Gantz had decided on a minority government with the support of the largely Arab Joint List.

Amir Peretz at the Labor Party headquarters, Tel Aviv, February 27, 2020.Credit: Meged Gozani

Gantz denied that such an agreement existed. It’s not clear what led Peretz to provide Likud with this piece of propaganda candy, three days before the election, except an outbreak of revenge against the Kahol Lavan campaign for stomping on Labor-Gesher-Meretz. Peretz defines himself as the “responsible adult” (he’s already running for president, if you hadn’t noticed) – but that move was infantile at best.

It’s hard to predict the dynamics, after the last opinion polls, that will determine the outcome on Tuesday. On one hand, the Likudniks are saying that the grass roots are burning with motivation, and the trend toward bringing the right-wing bloc – without Lieberman – to around three seats away from the longed-for 61 is continuing apace. Netanyahu’s life raft, they believe, is almost unstoppable.

On the other hand, later polls on Friday showed a certain turnabout in this trend. Perhaps it’s the straw that has broken the camel’s back in Netanyahu’s unrestrained campaign, including the Bachar incident, and led to a backlash. Perhaps the Kahol Lavan voters have simply woken up, after a somnolent and disappointing campaign, to the nightmare possibility of a Netanyahu victory. What certainly did not hurt were Gantz’s last three interviews Saturday and Friday, when he was finally aggressive, sharp and stutter-free.