Analysis |

If Re-elected, Netanyahu's First Order of Business Will Be an Obscenity Against Democracy

In the final days before the election, Netanyahu pulled from his hat some impressive diplomatic coups, while presiding over an unusually ugly campaign rife with trashy video clips. It seems to have paid off

Yossi Verter
Yossi Verter
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Israeli party heads are stir-fried in a wok.
Illustration.Credit: Amos Biderman
Yossi Verter
Yossi Verter

We’ll shed no tears for the election campaign that will end on Tuesday. Nor lament its departure. We’ve long since become fed up with it. As with a standing pond, disgusting forms of life developed in it and the smells emanating from it could challenge the gag reflex of even a hardened fighter in the naval commandos.

The bad news is that the weeks to come – between six and seven, experience says – promise no catharsis, either. The extortionist horse trading that falsely cloaks itself as involving “principles,” and is known as the coalition negotiations, will be with us until after Independence Day and will make even the most pious democrats long for a monarchy.

The most common complaint about the past 100 days is that this campaign was devoid of substance and content. It occupied itself with the trivial and the sensational, along with displaying an addiction to mudslinging, cheap gimmicks and trashy video clips. We didn’t get to see party leaders sitting opposite one another and talking about their platforms, detailing their worldviews, presenting plans and serious content, confronting the issues.

That’s not only the fault of the politicians and certainly not of all of them. Part of the responsibility lies with the media, which was swept up in an ugly wave of false news and spins at the expense of the “issues.”

Take Labor leader Avi Gabbay, for example. In the past year he visited about 20 hospitals across the country. He informed himself first-hand about the dire situation of public healthcare in Israel. His staff drew up a comprehensive report that constitutes the party’s platform on the topic, and presented it to the public. No one was interested. Similar impatience was seen when Moshe Kahlon, the leader of Kulanu, and perhaps the only party leader who conducted a substantive, malice-free campaign – one that dealt with content and with programs for the future – tried to expand on these issues and was immediately shouted down.

When did Gabbay draw media attention? When he launched a campaign accusing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of racism. “It works,” he concluded. A conversation was generated, a debate was sparked in the neighborhoods he visited: Does Bibi hate Mizrahim or not? Gabbay got the point and instructed his staff: Whatever you think Netanyahu is capable of, go lower. They did their best, but, it has to be admitted, they faltered in the face of the master of falsehoods and dirt.

Only Netanyahu could invite to the Prime Minister’s Residence a commonplace web lowlife who wouldn’t be allowed to cross the threshold of any self-respecting family and introduce him hospitably as a “real!” “person!” as though he were some Batman who by night saves lives and by day sits behind a desk in a dreary accountancy firm.

And only Netanyahu is capable of leaking a recording in which he’s heard trashing the country’s president, like that of “Captain George” and his cohorts but in more polished language. “[President Reuven] Rivlin is only looking for an excuse not to give us the mandate [to form the next government],” he ranted at a Likud event in an effort to get people to vote for him, giving the agreed-upon signal to his trolls in the social networks – led by his son – to savage the country’s most statesmanlike figure. Minutes later he tweeted a self-righteous wish for a speedy recovery to the First Lady, Nechama Rivlin, who underwent a life-threatening cardiac event while recovering from a lung transplant.

Vladimir Putin and Benjamin Netanyahu in the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia, Feb. 27, 2019. Credit: Alexei Druzhinin,AP

As fate would have it, that evening’s newscasts reported on two women: the president’s wife, who was heavily sedated and breathing via ventilator in Beilinson Hospital; and the prime minister’s wife, going amok, spraying hate, badmouthing and gossiping (about Naftali and Gilat Bennett in a six-year-old note in her bizarre handwriting, which was obtained by Channel 12’s indefatigable reporter Guy Peleg). It was a coincidence that seemed to be the work of a playwright: the first couple, honest, decent, principled, modest, lovers of humanity and of their nation; the second, their total opposite: underhanded, corrupt, unrestrained, dispensing poison.

In another few days we’ll do a restart. If the polls prove accurate and the right-ultra Orthodox bloc wins more seats than the center-left-Arab bloc, Netanyahu will get the nod for the fourth time since 2009. Rivlin, gritting his teeth, sorrowful and filled with a sense of imminent disaster, will do what’s expected of him. I wouldn’t bet that we’ll see a handshake there.

French bliss

If by chance Kahol Lavan co-leader Benny Gantz forms the next government, Likud – with or without Netanyahu, but more likely with – won’t join it. If the opposite happens, which looks more probable based on the latest polls, it’s totally obvious that Netanyahu’s supreme and indeed only imperative will be to cobble together an indictment coalition: one that will make it possible for him to continue to serve even after the hearing and after he’s indicted (something that the law permits), and possibly one that will scuttle the possibility of his being put on trial, by promoting the appropriate legislation. Kahol Lavan will have a really hard time being a partner to that abomination.

It’s impossible to overestimate the gravity of the so-called “French law” in its proposed Israeli version. It would mean the total disintegration, the absolute shattering of the rules of the game, a thuggish, Mafioso act, an obscenity against democracy. Personal, retroactive legislation (a decision to try Netanyahu, subject to a hearing, already exists) that would intervene in a legal procedure and turn the government of Israel into a sanctuary city for criminals.

The potential defendant isn’t bothering to deny this. Not in the interview on Channel 12 last Saturday night, and not in the interview on Thursday to Kan public radio. He went round and round, to the tune of “I haven’t dealt with that, I believe things will work out in the hearing,” etc. It wasn’t even an elegant evasion of the question.

But his path won’t be an easy one. Avigdor Lieberman, chairman of Yisrael Beiteinu, has declared that he won’t support retroactive legislation. He would prefer to have Netanyahu continue in the role of defendant. Kahalon already committed to opposing the proposal. Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked will decide when the time comes. Not even all of Likud’s members will vote in favor: Gilad Erdan said he would vote against such a bill; maybe Yuli Edelstein and Avi Dichter will, too. Here and there, a few islands of sanity remain.

History jests with us. In the 2015 coalition negotiations, Netanyahu forced his partners to sign off on a clause about the media that implicated him in suspicion of criminal wrongdoing (Case 4000). In the next negotiations, he’ll try to get them to sign off on the French law, which is aimed at extricating him from the deep legal pit he’s mired in, because of that original obsession, the mother of all sins.

Avi Gabbay visits the Carmel Market in Tel Aviv.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

Diplomatic core

“Netanyahu, in a different league,” says a 12-story high billboard on the northern façade of Likud’s historic Metzudat Ze’ev headquarters in Tel Aviv. Given recent events in the international arena, one can only conclude that at least this declaration by the ruling party’s campaign – which is rarely caught telling the truth – is accurate.

The timing of the return of the remains of Israel Defense Forces Staff Sgt. Zachary Baumel, who was killed in the battle of Sultan Yaaqub in Lebanon in 1982, six days before the polls open, can’t be a coincidence. There are no such coincidences. Just as U.S. recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights didn’t emerge from nowhere. Everything was planned and perfectly timed, to the satisfaction and benefit of he who pulls the strings.

Only Netanyahu, whose status in the global arena is extraordinary, is capable of enlisting the heads of the great powers and “third-party countries” to help him in his election campaign. So it was with U.S. President Donald Trump and the Golan, and so it was with Netanyahu’s trip Thursday to Russia to meet President Vladimir Putin, who instructed his army in Syria to assist in the “intelligence and operational” effort that led to the return of the remains.

Putin didn’t suffice with that. To say that he went out of his way for Netanyahu would be the understatement of the century. The Russian president produced a breathtaking, jaw-dropping, headline-grabbing drama for his good pal: a kind of military funeral, majestic and impressive, in the halls of the Kremlin, for the fallen Israeli. One doubts whether a Russian military casualty would have been subject to such a gesture. It’s chilling just to imagine what Putin might ask for, and perhaps has already received, in return. Or maybe he just wanted to do something nice.

By the same token, that was obviously also the aim of Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro’s visit to Israel this week: to provide his good friend with what politicians covet most in an election campaign – namely, precious airtime in the free media with a diplomatic aroma.

It’s the most effective propaganda of all, broadcasts that no election referee can tamper with. All these developments took place on the diplomatic playing field where there is only one player skillfully maneuvering the ball toward an empty net and scoring spectacular goals one after the other.

This impressive global mobilization is intended to divert the public agenda in the final days of the election campaign to Netanyahu’s only remaining unchallenged strength: international statesmanship.

In the security realm, he’s suffered several setbacks recently. The latest confrontation in the Gaza Strip ended frustratingly and with a blow to Israeli morale. The IDF’s response to the rockets fired at the country’s center was mild. Hamas is now getting lots of concessions and gifts from Israel, a fitting Zionist reward for firing on Tel Aviv, the Sharon district and Gaza border communities.

The prime minister tried (and largely succeeded) to compensate for his string of snafus with the human and media drama of the return home of the remains of a fallen IDF soldier. His rivals can only mumble a few words of congratulations and make way in the news cycle for the person who’s once again showing them how it’s done.

Three working days remain, including Election Day itself. On Sunday, Hamas prisoners in Israel are expected to launch a hunger strike to protest the blocking of their cellphones. Netanyahu will know how to leverage that, too. What else? One of the leaders of the left wing told me this week, “I’m amazed that he hasn’t evacuated [the Bedouin community of] Khan al-Ahmar. He can only benefit from that.”

Benny Gantz speaks at an election campaign event in Ashkelon, April 3, 2019. Credit: \ AMIR COHEN/ REUTERS

Close-quarters combat

Two years ago, during the election campaign for the leadership of the Histadrut federation of labor, MK Shelly Yacimovich (Labor) was huddling with a few of her colleagues in a café in Yehud. A certain Benny Gantz passed by, came over to the table, said hi and asked what was happening, how things were going.

“We’re fighting,” Yacimovich replied. Gantz gave her that arrogant, white-toothed smile that characterizes generals and pilots who lord it over politicians, and said amiably, “You only fight on the battlefield.”

It would be interesting to know if he thinks that way now, after he himself called the past month “the most difficult in my life.” Yacimovich was reminded of this story as we talked about the “morning after.” I asked her whether she, who has described Gantz as a good man, decent and positive, really believes that he will renege on his repeated promises and join a Netanyahu-led coalition. I don’t see it happening, I said, not after the way Bibi slandered him, not with all his corruption, not with the criminal cases waiting for the attorney general’s decision, and with the affair of the shares in the steel company now in the spotlight.

“Absolutely yes,” Yacimovich replied. “That was his intention from the outset. And his rhetoric is very transparent to an experienced political ear: ‘The door is closed but not locked,’ ‘We will find an arrangement if [U.S. President Donald] Trump puts forward his deal,’ ‘In the present situation’ – as though the situation doesn’t change every minute. It will be a tragedy,” she added, “if ideological voters, peace lovers, social democrats, end up casting their ballots for a right-wing government.”

This is also Avi Gabbay’s narrative. “In the conversations we held,” he related this week, “Gantz would say, ‘You can be an ex-chief of staff only once in life.’ In other words, the aura fades quickly, and therefore he has to be Netanyahu’s defense minister.” He said that a half a year ago and more, Gabbay admitted, but the principle and the mood, in his non-objective view, haven’t changed despite the public declarations.

In the past few weeks, Gantz has been subjected to what no rival of Netanyahu – the champion of the negative campaigns – has had to absorb in the past. An IDF chief of staff has been described as mentally unstable, as having cheated on his wife and as being subject to blackmail by the Iranians, who have the contents of his cellphone in their possession. In these circumstances, cooperation between them looks blatantly improbable.

The boss(woman)

In the past two elections, the party of Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked (in alliance with Uri Ariel’s National Union) was the second-largest winner on the right, after Likud: 12 seats in 2013, eight in 2015.

They played solo, in splendid isolation. There were no other satellite parties to give them a serious fight. But now there has been a natural increase in the bloc: Moshe Feiglin’s Zehut and the new Habayit Hayehudi – with the National Union and the Kahanist Otzma Yehudit – after being abandoned by Shaked and Bennett at the start of the campaign. Both or one of them, according to some polls, might outdo Hayamin Hehadash, Bennett and Shaked’s new party, in the number of Knesset seats won. A rough fight is underway in the Bermuda Triangle of the satellite right.

What humiliation, what an embarrassment. To finish second or third? Or, heaven forbid, not to cross the electoral threshold? In the headquarters of the party, there is a pervasive sense of dread. All the perfume in the world can’t cover up the smell of the sour sweat. Yes, something went awry for the right wing’s two poster kids. That something is called mainly Moshe Feiglin, who is attracting many of their voters – secular, traditionalist or “religious-lite” people.

Shaked-Bennett are polling an average of five seats. When they started out, Bennett enthusiastically did various calculations and estimated their potential to be 11-12 seats. Shaked followed him, but with reservations and doubts. She was never completely happy with the move, and is obviously even less so today. Not because of the ordeals of the past, but in view of the land mines of the future.

Let’s say they get five seats in a coalition of 66 MKs. Netanyahu will offer them one senior portfolio and a second, less-important ministry. Which of them will be the senior minister? They both hold the same status, they’re joint leaders. On the actual ballot, Shaked’s name precedes Bennett’s. She’s clearly the more popular of the two, the magnet for the votes. What was agreed upon before – he’s No. 1, she’s No. 2 – is no longer relevant in the current round. She won’t yield seniority.

Not to mention what will happen if they get four seats and Netanyahu offers them one ministerial portfolio, according to the usual arithmetic. Then, who will be the minister? I asked Shaked whether she and Bennett had reached a prior agreement. No, she replied, there are no agreements – I believe we’ll work it out. I asked again, and she repeated: I believe we’ll work it out. Who will decide? They don’t have rabbis to go to. Will they flip a coin? Arm-wrestle? It’ll be all right, she said.

Three comments in conclusion

Meretz: The party’s billboards carry a portrait of party leader Tamar Zandberg – and of her alone. A mistake. Meretz’s strength always lay in the brand, the team, the ideology – not the individual person. The head of the party isn’t a “Bibi” or a “Feiglin.” Voters don’t say: I’ll cast my ballot for Tami, or for Zandberg, but for Meretz. Gabbay, who is in a similar situation, grasped that and placed the opening attractive six on Labor’s slate alongside him in the posters. They strengthen him, not vice versa.

Kahol Lavan: If Benny Gantz forms the next government, it won’t be because of the campaign he and his colleagues conducted, but despite what can barely be called a campaign. Its focus was totally fragmented: the corruption and the three criminal cases (an issue they abandoned quickly, which helped Netanyahu eliminate it from the public debate); submarines; Gaza; the “13 years” he’s been in power, and more where those came from. There was a saying in the Sayeret Matkal special-ops unit: Even when two go to pee, it’s worth having one in charge of the event. Here there were four commanding officers and zero focus.

Likud: Who’s heard from David Amsalem, Miki Zohar, David Bitan, Yaron Mazuz or Miri Regev lately? The gentlemen and the lady were wrapped up and have been hidden away, at least as deeply as the secrets Netanyahu didn’t share with the chief of staff and the defense minister about the submarines. Testing for the party at the start of the campaign showed that each of these folks causes damage to the party every time their voice booms from the radio or their face is seen on the TV screen. The target audience began to flee. In Regev’s case, there’s more to it. She’s in double punishment. Sara has dropped her. They’re no longer “besties,” after what the culture minister said, possibly as a slip of the tongue and possibly not, after the primary, in which party members vote for more than one candidate: “I voted for Gideon Sa’ar, too.” At that moment, it’s said in Likud, the curtain dropped, the axe fell and darkness fell on Balfour Street.

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