Analysis |

Trump Once Again Proves He's Netanyahu's Private Santa Claus

Gantz's hacked phone hasn't hurt his party, but Netanyahu's submarine affair may finish him – unless Trump saves him ■ Ayelet Shaked’s perfume video is her party's Hail Mary

Yossi Verter
Yossi Verter
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Credit: Amos Biderman
Yossi Verter
Yossi Verter

The prime minister goes before the cameras with a gloomy visage and film-noir lighting, his silhouette shimmering from behind, and demands that his rival reveal forthwith the contents of his smartphone, which supposedly in the hands of Iranian intelligence. If the candidate is elected, the prime minister warns, he could be subject to blackmail. A security apocalypse! A second Holocaust! When Benny Gantz is in the prime minister’s chair, he’ll give the Iranians information about Israel’s nuclear weapons, to ensure they don’t make public his personal correspondence. That’s the implicit message of the prime minister’s remarks.

What are you hiding from the public and your colleagues, Benny Gantz? – thundered the man whose quantity of criminal and personal skeletons could fill not one closet but all of Alibaba’s warehouses in China. Why didn’t you share the personal information with your colleagues? – demands the person who approved and promoted a putrid submarine deal behind the backs of the defense minister and the military’s chief of staff.

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Benjamin Netanyahu called Avi Dichter to the witness stand, and the latter did his usual number: “I stand before you not only as the chairman of the [Knesset] Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, but also as a former director of the Shin Bet security service. The thought that a prime minister could be subject to blackmail by Israel’s number-one enemy is incomprehensible and unacceptable.”

Exactly. The thought that a former chief of staff who devoted his whole adult life to the country’s defense would, while of sound mind, place himself in a position to be blackmailed, wouldn’t make it across the threshold of any screenwriter. The public, it turns out, understands this. Almost a week after the episode was made public, the polls show that the bleeding of Kahol Lavan’s support among the electorate has been stanched. Gantz’s party is even showing signs of recovery.

The election campaign is turning out to be one of Israel’s most bizarre and inane. Zero substance, no content. Only spectacle and folly. “Happy Purim,” the prime minister concluded at the press conference. Right on. And how sad to see what’s happened to Dichter. Considered one of the most successful Shin Bet directors, the man who later was a symbol of principle and morality in Ehud Olmert’s government has become a walking parody, groveling to Netanyahu.

Before making his statement to the media Wednesday afternoon, Netanyahu held a consultation at his residence. In addition to Dichter, it was attended by cabinet ministers Yariv Levin and Gilad Erdan and MKs Amir Ohana and Sharren Haskel. Levin and Erdan have often been called on for advice during the campaign; Ohana asked the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee to discuss the hacking of the smartphone. It’s not clear how Haskel entered the picture – maybe under the rubric of a woman.

Gantz’s phone has to stay in the headlines, Netanyahu told the meeting. Keep pounding away at it. As someone who commissions polls almost every day, Netanyahu already knew that the strategy adopted after the story of the hacked phone broke – to say little and let the free press cover the story – had failed. A few days before donning the statesman’s mantle and flying to the United States, Netanyahu decided to deliver the second strike himself. That attests less to the seriousness of the issue than to the pressure the accuser is under.

Unfortunately for him, a few hours later, the news came out about a possible criminal investigation against him in connection with the shares he held in a Texas steel factory owned by his cousin, Nathan Milikowsky. Netanyahu’s conflict of interest cries out to the heavens, senior prosecutors says. Another investigation – this time in Case 3000, which will be reopened, and which is of incalculable gravity – even if it doesn’t become official until after the election, could finish him off. He’d do anything to switch places with Gantz.

Benjamin Netanyahu.Credit: Gil Cohen Magen

Ruing the rotation

There’s a popular game in Israel called Dwarf and Giant, basically Secret Santa. In America, Bibi, even though he’s 7 centimeters (3 inches) shorter than Gantz, is the giant of the two. The first half of next week will see them both in Washington, where they’ll address the policy conference of AIPAC, the American Israel lobby. The Jews, primarily those of a Republican bent, will cheer them both. Netanyahu’s proxy affair with the Kahanists of Otzma Yehudit will be forgotten.

He’ll waffle before his audience as only he can, and the Americans will respond enthusiastically to the waffling as only they do. Time after time he has spat at them: in the case of Women of the Wall, in the conversion issue, in supporting Meir Kahane’s heirs for the Knesset. And time and again they wipe the spit from their faces and thank the good Lord for the blessed rain.

Netanyahu will meet with his most ardent campaigner and supporter, Donald Trump. It has already become clear that the president is about to give him a major election present: U.S. recognition of Israeli sovereignty in the Golan. While the entire democratic world sees Trump as an unfortunate historic accident, a harmful, childish imp, for Netanyahu, the U.S. president is the gift that keeps on giving. His own private Santa Claus, all year long.

Netanyahu couldn’t have asked for a better note on which to conclude the election campaign. He’ll return from the visit with his main strength – his role as a key player on the statesmanship stage, both globally and in America in particular – lit up with a maximum dose of patriotic steroids. There isn't a piece of land more beloved by Israelis, including the leftists among them, than the Golan heights. The move that all U.S. presidents since '67 have avoided (just like moving the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem) is the fruit of meticulous planning. How can I help my friend Bibi? Trump must have asked his advisers. Give him the Golan, they replied.

Donald Trump.Credit: AFP

Netanyahu and Gantz will return to Israel two weeks before the election, long before most of the undecideds choose whom to vote for on April 9. Kahol Lavan’s campaign, it’s clear, will focus on the submarine deal. Netanyahu and Likud will try to stoke the fire of the story of Gantz’s phone. But without outside help, that will be tough. While Netanyahu falsely claimed that the "Iranian regime openly supports" Gantz, the Iranians certainly have no reason to help this prime minister get re-elected.

In the week before Election Day, a bloodbath could ensue within both blocs. The two big players will aim their fire at the neighboring parties. There’s lots of acreage in the Labor Party, people close to Gantz say – Avi Gabbay’s party can lose three or four more seats and remain alive. Gabbay doesn’t intend to turn the other cheek; he’s suggesting that Gantz find salvation closer to home.

Gabbay asked his pollster, Stephan Miller, to examine what Gantz could do to win over more seats from the right. Definitely an altruistic move. Miller looked into question of Gantz’s premiership rotation with Yair Lapid, and found that canceling that agreement could get Kahol Lavan two and a half seats from the right-wing bloc.

Or course, this was a commissioned poll, so it has to be taken with skepticism. But the rotation issue is a huge Achilles’ heel, a self-inflicted one. Gantz’s people admit this. A senior Kahol Lavan official said recently in a private conversation: “We’re paying a high price for the rotation, but we had no choice. Without it, Lapid wouldn’t have come along.”

Without the rotation, the Likud slogan “Lapid-Gantz. Left. Weak” would never have happened. It’s extremely effective and the only slogan that has trickled down to the guy on the street. The time is drawing near for some serious stocktaking in Kahol Lavan.

Benny Gantz and Yair Lapid at a Kahol Lavan press conference.Credit: Moti Milrod

Scent of a woman

Ayelet Shaked’s perfume video was shot more than a month ago; that’s a well-known method in political campaigns: “We’ll shoot and then decide.” The days passed, the polls looked bad, the 3.25-percent electoral threshold loomed ever more threateningly. The time came to take out the stink bomb.

There’s a saying that when the house is burning, you don’t get fussy over how people are rescued from the flames. In marketing terms, it was a tremendous success. Nothing that Shaked and Naftali Bennett, the leaders of the Hayamin Hehadash party, did over the previous three months got them even a fifth of the number of people who watched the clip, talked about it, argued about it, loved and hated it, were enthused and disgusted by it – and by her.

The video contains every trick in the book, including flagrant sexuality and a mobilization of the right against the common enemy – the left, the courts, the media, the bleeding hearts. And it sends a reminder to everyone who hasn’t noticed that Bennett and Shaked are no longer in a hardali – religious-Zionist/ultra-Orthodox – party.

The use of the word “fascism,” which for millions of people in the West evokes horrific vistas of dictatorship, suffering and a loss of humanity (but which is more easily digested in Israel) is the ideal spice for this dish. The bonus is the debate that was triggered by the clip: Is it cynicism per se and the trashing of values and norms, or a sophisticated, bold satire that holds a cruel mirror up to the critics of the justice minister? The moment two conflicting views were created, for and against, the whole matter ostensibly acquired legitimacy. The opponents of the ad can be accused of hypocrisy, its supporters lauded for being enlightened, or the opposite. It’s really a philosophical issue or an academic exercise.

In this campaign, parties that aren’t Likud or Kahol Lavan are having a hard time joining the conversation and stirring interest. The perfume inspiration may well have saved Hayamin Hehadash from extinction. The provocative video also caught the attention of people who take no interest in politics.

What does the public actually remember from an election campaign? Only edge events. “Black swans,” in the professional jargon. What are people remembering from the current campaign? Very little. There was nothing because there is nothing. Weak left. Gantz’s speech. Things like that. Shaked dabbing herself with “fascism” against a semi-erotic musical background is already part of the public consciousness.

She has no problem with sexism, self-objectification, she has no problem with anything, our Ayelet. We’re in a campaign, she’s responding to her critics. When she was appointed justice minister, former cabinet minister Yosef Paritzky wrote that it was the first time an Israeli justice minister could feature on a calendar in garages. The feminists lashed out at him, defending with holy and ferocious wrath the trampled honor of their sister.

Today they probably feel a bit foolish. The video is, of course, the marginal, piquant detail in the campaign. The central event is Shaked’s plan to pulverize (restrain, in her word) and annihilate the judiciary for which she’s responsible as justice minister.

To understand the root of the madness, you have to cruise social media and the right-wing groups. Shaked and Bennett are being vilified mercilessly there. The support of Supreme Court justices whom she appointed for the disqualification of Michael Ben Ari as a Knesset candidate (as if his remarks could be interpreted as anything other than incitement to racism) turned Shaked from the right’s beloved heroine into a target for defamation and persecution.

Where’s your conservative revolution, the right wants to know, what did you actually accomplish other than boast and depict yourself as the most effective justice minister in Israel’s history?

Shaked’s new platform, which befell us 12 hours after the High Court of Justice banned Ben Ari and validated both left-winger Ofer Cassif (Hadash-Ta’al) and the Balad-United Arab List, was aimed at placating the attackers. It’s not just a monument of cynicism. It contains a seed of self-defeat. If the system needs such a violent shake-up, to the point of abolishing the committee to appoint judges and letting the politicians alone choose them (something Shaked never proposed), she’s effectively admitting her failure.

Until a week ago, she took pride in her achievements, in her successful collaboration with the bar association and its former head, Efraim Nave, in her appointments, her “revolution.” Overnight it all came tumbling down. Suddenly, others hindered her, Moshe Kahlon tripped her up, Bibi didn’t go with the flow. But don’t worry, in the next term everything will be better. The High Court will be crushed and Hamas will be defeated, whichever comes first.

Bennett and Shaked have lost control of their brakes. They sound like Oren Hazan, the Likud MK who won’t be returning to the Knesset. The way Bennett talks about the security policy of the government and of the security cabinet, of which he’s a member, is completely off the rails. At the start of the campaign, when the two disengaged from Habayit Hayehudi-Ha’ihud Haleumi, they declared themselves Hayamin Hehadash (“the new right”), in the nonmilitant, non-extremist sense.

We wanted to be rid of the wacky Moti Yogev, they explained. But Shaked’s plan to destroy the judicial system isn’t a D-9 bulldozer to level the Supreme Court, it’s a carpet-bombing run from the air. It’s frightening to think what kind of campaign exit they’re planning for the final week, when Netanyahu sounds the horn and hunting season begins on parties in the bloc.

Antisocial network

The 2019 election could spell the end of the “social” agenda and send its proponents into early retirement. In an extreme scenario, the next Knesset won’t have any party that promotes the social agenda.

Kahlon, the most merciful and compassionate finance minister we’ve had, is fighting tooth and nail to keep his Kulanu party above the electoral threshold. Orli Levi-Abekasis has already forgotten what the view is like above the red line.

Moshe Kahlon.Credit: Moti Milrod

Until a few months ago, those parties were flying high in the polls, garnering, between them, the equivalent of 12 or 13 Knesset seats. The entry into the arena of Gantz’s Hosen L’Yisrael, which became Kahol Lavan, sowed destruction in their ranks. Levi-Abekasis and Kahlon lost about half their voters. She sank into the depths; he’s still floating on the surface.

The Israeli electorate’s penchant for social-minded parties is cyclical. In the 2006 election, Labor headed by Amir Peretz and with Shelly Yacimovich as a star won 19 seats. That’s a fantastic figure, especially coming against Kadima, which was strongly in the picture in the left-right bloc. The simpatico Pensioners Party of Rafi Eitan was the surprise of that election, taking seven seats.

In 2009, after Operation Cast Lead in Gaza, the focus was on security. Social issues were out. Only to return in 2013. Yesh Atid’s Lapid with his “Where’s the money?” slogan, and Yacimovich at the head of Labor, won 19 and 15 seats, respectively. In 2015, Kahlon and his party fed on the leftovers of the social agenda. He came away with 10 seats, a handsome number. Now he’s barely at half that figure in the polls, while Levi-Abekasis is down to two seats among the social-minded voters, who come from the center-left. (To enter the Knesset, a party must win 3.25 percent of the total vote, which translates into four MKs.)

Gesher was bequeathed to Orli by her father, David Levy. From him she inherited a sensitivity for the weak. She also shares with him the tendencies to pomposity and self-aggrandizement. But David Levy was one of the country’s smartest politicians. Even when his head was in the clouds, his feet were planted firmly on the ground. He was enough of a realist never to have tested himself in an election.

In 1996, he and his Gesher party hooked up with Likud, and in 1999 he crossed the lines to join Ehud Barak and Yisrael Ahat. His daughter strained the nerves of Benny Gantz with endless negotiations and ended up on the outside. This is the first time Gesher is running independently in an election – and wow, what bad timing.

The major reason for the weakening of the social politicians is that once again, as in 2009 – but not in 2013 or 2006 – it’s a head-to head battled; this time, Netanyahu vs. Gantz. The voters on both sides are imbued with a sense of mission and urgency. This isn’t the time to be pampered.

The election has also assumed a right vs. left character. Kahlon is meeting 600 to 700 people a day in assemblies and parlor meetings. Someone always asks him: Whom do you prefer, Gantz or Bibi?

Don’t give me that, he replies. If you want Bibi, then vote for him. Why do you need me? He tells Gantz supporters the same thing. I am not Bibi and I am not Gantz, he tells them. I am Kahlon, purely Kahlon. If you want to vote for me, fine; if you want Bibi or Gantz, vote for them. He’s decided to cut down media interviews and concentrate on fieldwork, to stump from house to house. In places where he shows up physically, he believes, things change in his favor.

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