Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has a favorite remark – one of many, actually – with which he regales the many municipal officials and grass-roots activists he meets ahead of an election. In the last three such encounters, some interlocutors warned about the likelihood of low voter turnout in Likud bastions in outlying areas – namely, in the north and the south. “We have to get these people to the polling stations,” they told Netanyahu.
They were talking about logistics: organization, transportation, door-to-door canvassing. Netanyahu, however, was in a completely different place. “We need to scare them out,” he said. That is the very essence of the prime minister’s political outlook.
He’s been at the helm for 10 consecutive years. His power is sweeping, total, second only to that of David Ben-Gurion. All the gatekeepers are his appointees; his people are in control of all systems of oversight and supervision, security and intelligence. In America he’s been referred to as “king”; here he’s called “emperor.”
None of this prevented him from stepping out onto the balcony of the office he has on the 14th floor of Metzudat Ze’ev, Likud’s headquarters in central Tel Aviv, donning the mask of the victim and lamenting to his followers in the social networks: “They’re trying to steal the election from us.” “They” refers to the Arabs and, of course, also to the legal professionals who constitute the infrastructure of the “deep state.”
“We are trying to introduce cameras into the polling stations to prevent that from happening,” he whined, adding, “All the forces are working against us. You see it in the media night after night.”
Like poison mushrooms, the mendacious tweets didn’t take long to proliferate: “Without the fake votes [last April], Balad [an Arab party] would have been outside and the right-wing bloc would have had 61 seats,” Likud declared, noting, “Now they are trying to prevent oversight of the election, which will once more make it possible to steal the election against the will of the voter. Scandalous.”
Son Yair Netanyahu added his own, characteristic, low blow on Twitter (“Madness! The left and the Arabs stole the election from us!”), while members of the court media eagerly fanned the flames of a sense of impending emergency.
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Totally outrageous legislation was drafted to allow cameras into the polling stations. Its indubitable rejection by the attorney general followed quickly, as did the premier’s response: “We will press on with the legislation to place cameras in the polling stations, we will not allow the election to be stolen.” Everything proceeded according to the scenario drawn up in campaign headquarters.
“The Arabs are stealing the election” is the 2019 version of “The Arabs are flocking in droves to the polling stations.” To heighten the sense of dread Netanyahu is trying to infuse in his constituency, on Wednesday – the eve of his bizarre visit to London – he reincarnated the winning clip from the 2015 election. Against the backdrop of the same image from four years ago of the Middle East, a region roiling with threats and danger, and swarming with terror organizations and precision-missile factories, he expressed no less than “astonishment” at the attorney general’s rejection of the idea of allowing cameras into polling stations in the provocative manner he is demanding.
Again he half-promised and half-threatened: We will press on with the legislation. The next targets in his crosshairs: the Supreme Court justices.
Off the wall
Bibi will always have Arabs to vilify and incite against. He’ll also always have Arab MKs who will vote along with him in favor of disbanding the Knesset or will support his candidate for state comptroller. Thus, the “Arabs” are golden shares that always reap dividends. He can count on them, for example, not to recommend to President Reuven Rivlin after the election that Kahol Lavan leader Benny Gantz form the next government. Result: Thus the premier will always have more Knesset members behind him than Gantz, giving him a significant edge in the race to get the nod from Rivlin. He trusts them more than he does Ayelet Shaked and Naftali Bennett. For sure, he hates them less.
The double-edged tactic Netanyahu employs is aimed to fire up his base and augment its turnout at the polls, but also to taint the democratic process in advance. This tactic wasn’t invented in Likud campaign headquarters. There are countries – which Israel does not want to be compared to – where similar allegations are voiced by the oppressed representatives of the opposition, such as Juan Guaidó in Venezuela and Alexei Navalny in Russia. The innovation in Israel is the use of this tactic by an unbridled ruler who himself is trampling norms and values. The great danger of this lies in Bibi’s possible response should his prophecy of doom and gloom come true.
For a defeat at the polls – that is, the failure of his camp to garner 61 Knesset seats – will confirm his claim of the theft, perversion and contamination of the election. What will he do in such a situation, in which he doesn’t get the minimum number of seats that will ensure that he remains a free man? If he casts doubt on the legitimacy of the election from the outset, why should he accept its outcome?
Netanyahu of autumn 2019 is not the democrat we knew in previous terms. He’s a wounded animal, desperate – a fugitive (prima facie) criminal, some would say. He is waging the battle of his life in the most acute sense. The hearing before the attorney general in the cases against him is scheduled to take place in another month. That’s a twinkling of the eye. Afterward, even before the final decision is rendered on whether to indict him, things will change. There will be leaks, there will be hints.
It’s no wonder the folks in the Balfour Street residence are losing it. The situation there is akin to “a total loss,” as one Likud cabinet minister put it this week. They’re over the top, he said. Which explains the wacky clip Netanyahu shot last Saturday evening in the yard of the family villa in Caesarea. In a performance that raised serious questions about his mental stability, he claimed that the reporters, editors, managers and owners of the Keshet television network, and its Channel 12 News, were trying to perpetrate a terror attack “on democracy and truth.”
The politician who is leading the most despicable, cynical and twisted election campaign ever mounted here is positing himself as the champion of the truth.
A day earlier, in a Facebook post, Netanyahu had urged his voters to boycott Keshet and Channel 12 and its industrious correspondent Guy Peleg, who had come up with quotes from the interrogations of Shlomo Filber, who has turned state’s evidence in Case 4000. (The fabricated excuse for Bibi’s request was that Keshet was a partner in the production of the recent HBO miniseries, “Our Boys,” which the premier termed anti-Semitic). But that was a step too far even in his sick lexicon.
The reactions were harsh. “Boycott” is a tough word. There are normative Likudniks, too. Not all of them wallow in the mire of hatred and incitement. Folks in Netanyahu’s close circle realized they had overdone it. Half an hour after the so-called terror clip, they posted a pleasant clip of Bibi as simpatico tourist guide, encountering hikers and pointing them rightward.
The intention was to dissipate as quickly as possible the awful impression created by the earlier display of loss of control, the result of 24 hours in the company of Sara and Yair. They drive Bibi crazy, and maybe also scold and humiliate him (as was evident this week, and not for the first time, from reports about the testimony of Nir Hefetz, who related that they call him a “weakling” if he doesn’t submit to their directives).
It was also decided to drop the call for a boycott of Channel 12. Two opinion polls published early this week showed the self-inflicted damage. In both, a large majority of those with an opinion on the subject came out strongly against the boycott idea. Among them were quite a few Likud voters.
The party’s senior figures were instructed to lie and say that Netanyahu hadn’t been referring to a total boycott, but “only” one that would be undertaken by the 700 possessors of a Peoplemeter, the special devices according to which a TV show’s ratings are determined. And who is a more adept mouthpiece than Amir Ohana, aka, shamefully, the “justice minister”? In a radio interview on Monday, when asked about the call for a boycott, he replied as he was told to: Boycott? No way. Only by those used for measuring viewing percentages. It’s a technical thing, related only to the industry.
If Ohana’s interviewer had taken the trouble to check Netanyahu’s original post, she would have seen the following sentence: “Since the series [‘Our Boys’] went on the air last month [it’s not being broadcast by Keshet, but who cares?], many of you have asked me what can be done. My recommendation is clear: Don’t watch Keshet or Keshet content.” Afterward he added a specific call to those with a Peoplemeter.
The interviewer did not confront Ohana with the facts. The narrative he sought to convey was accepted by some. That’s the way to steal public opinion.
There’s more of a seepage of voters between Likud and the Otzma Yehudit party than there is between the latter and Yamina. Itamar Ben-Gvir and his cohorts are angry at Yamina leader Ayelet Shaked for not guaranteeing Ben-Gvir the place he feels he deserves on her slate, are boiling mad at Naftali Bennett for torpedoing a possible union between the two parties, and are disappointed in Bezalel Smotrich and Rafi Peretz, from the Habayit Hayehudi faction within Yamina, for not fighting hard enough for Ben-Gvir.
But Ben-Gvir and his supporters are sympathetic to Netanyahu. He tried, he pushed, he worked for them. In the April election he agreed to have Likud forfeit a place on its slate and give it to Eli Ben-Dahan of Habayit Hayehudi, so that Ben-Gvir would have what then looked like a realistic spot on the Habayit Hayehudi Knesset ticket. They know in Otzma Yehudit that Bibi and Sara and Yair are very much in favor of them, on their wavelength. Until recently, Sara expressed the hope that Otzma would make it into the Knesset, which would guarantee the sought-after right-wing bloc of at least 61 seats. So Ben-Gvir will be a cabinet minister, what’s the big deal? How is he different from Smotrich, the transportation minister? Only in nuances, and it’s not clear in whose favor or to whose detriment.
Until a few days ago, the assessment in Netanyahu’s circle was that Otzma Yehudit would pass the necessary threshold of 3.25 percent of the votes – representing four seats – to enter the Knesset. However, a broad internal survey carried out for Likud’s campaign headquarters threw cold water on that optimism.
On Wednesday evening, people on the Likud ticket were instructed to come down hard on Otzma and to explain to right-wingers that voting for a party that, according to that survey, would definitely not win more than two or two-and-a-half seats (75,000 to 80,000 votes) would be tantamount to committing suicide. Precious votes would go down the tubes and with them Netanyahu’s hold on power.
If that message actually trickles down and voters internalize it and defect to Likud, or to Yamina – Netanyahu could get close to the lifesaving goal of 61 seats. If not, he’s in trouble.
The stage of the massive campaign crush is here. It will peak next week and seep into the following one. The visit this past Wednesday by Netanyahu and his wife in Hebron – his first in 20 years – and their joint photo caressing the Tomb of the Patriarchs and casting beseeching eyes heavenward, was sheer flirtation with and courting of Otzma Yehudit’s voters.
Yamina knows that on this front, as far as Otzma Yehudit is concerned, their defeat is certain. To offset Netanyahu’s scavenging of their slate as much as possible, they laid an ambush for him. In early June – after the new election was called and it turned out that Moshe Feiglin was running again as head of his Zehut party – Naftali Bennett marked Zehut’s voters as a realistic option for his Hayamin Hehadash. Zehut got about 120,000 votes last April; of them, 20,000 tops were wackos who want to rebuild the Temple and evict all the Arabs, and harbor other similar dangerous fantasies. But the vast majority of the supporters were right-wingers enthralled by the wonders of Feiglin’s libertarianism, calls for personal freedom and, of course, by his stand in favor of legalization of cannabis, about which something of a consensus has already emerged. Those 90,000-100,000 people, Bennett concluded, are potential clients.
He held a series of meetings in his home with three top people from Zehut: Gilad Alper, Libby Molad and Rafael Minnes. These confabs, which were kept secret, engendered their hookup with Yamina – more accurately, with Hayamin Hehadash, which is expected to conduct itself autonomously after the election, disconnected from Habayit Hayehudi (the two parties constitute Yamina).
Last week, the spurned Feiglin rediscovered Netanyahu, and vice versa. They’re in it together now (Zehut dropped out of the race), in return for a slew of promises on the ice made by the national promiser. Have no worry: Zehut voters will not cast their ballot for Likud, and the closest Feiglin willcome to the cabinet’s conference room will be seeing the traditional Sunday morning photo-op on TV, or in his dreams at night, alongside the Temple.
Thursday evening, Bennett and Shaked held a press conference with their new supporters, the three former Zehut-niks. Bennett loved it. He was back in his commando days – after a daring raid, behind Netanyahu’s back. The prime minister is getting Feiglin. But Naftali and Ayelet are getting the whole infrastructure of Zehut, including the grass-roots activists, the administrators and the spokespeople . And best of all – Bibi didn’t know, Bibi didn’t know.
For the first time since who knows when, Kahol Lavan awoke on Wednesday morning to a rosy day. The party was in the headlines, but this time, for a change, for the right reasons. The fact that Benny Gantz gave the ultra-Orthodox the finger was a significant development in his party’s comatose campaign. It was apparently held deliberately until now, two weeks before the election.
It wasn’t easy for Gantz. Generally he comes off seeming nice, sociable. His stubborn courtship of the Haredi parties was already bordering on criminal harassment. They read it as weakness and responded accordingly. That’s the way they are. If by some miracle he gets the nod from the president to form the next government, they will be open for business. But their first preference will always be Netanyahu and Likud. There’s no scenario in which they will be asked to choose between Bibi and Gantz and will support the latter. So, theoretically, his risk is minimal, whereas less theoretically, the prospect of luring voters away from Yisrael Beiteinu, Labor-Gesher and/or Democratic Union is greater.
Avigdor Lieberman spotted the danger immediately. He sees the same surveys and is also familiar with people’s moods. He announced that Gantz and the Haredim were joining forces to spur a fake quarrel, just to get under his skin. “That’s not an assessment, it’s information,” emphasized Lieberman, who apparently has some kind of intelligence apparatus. He also “knew” that Labor leader Amir Peretz had struck a wide-ranging deal with Netanyahu. A standard-order mole isn’t capable of providing this kind of deep, dark material. Only electronic chips inserted in the heads of his rivals could allow such absolute access.
The liberal-secular trend is catching on, and Yisrael Beiteinu is the overwhelming proof. In Kahol Lavan, they’re aware of their brittleness among the electorate. On a good day, with a powerful last-gasp campaign, Lieberman may be capable of robbing them of another seat above what he’s already snatched. Their move this week was intended mainly for containment and defense purposes.
Gantz is wrapping up an overall positive week. In the polls, his party is locked neck and neck with Likud, at 30-31 seats apiece, on average. That’s a good result at this juncture. The assumption is that as the final days of campaigning approach, the two big parties will again be at the forefront. The possible scenario in which no one wins 61 seats could create an opening for a surprise move by President Rivlin.
Does this week mark the end of the bummer era for Kahol Lavan? They have had their fill of recordings, leaks, arguments and internal investigations that spawned nothing but public embarrassment. If they don’t go back to shooting themselves in their perforated feet, they could prove to be a surprise in this election.
At night, around the campfire, sit the communications ministers of the past decade. They’re warming their hands over the dancing flames. Their silence is deafening. Yuli and Ophir, Tzachi and Gilad, Moshe and Ayoub. Oy, our Ayoub. In this imaginary gathering of warriors, they share in painful silence the raucousness of the screaming, the vulgarity of the prying, the pounding of the fists (on the table, luckily for them).
None of their ministerial colleagues endured what they endured; none of the others bear scars like theirs. They were all battered, humiliated, diminished, whether as full-time communications ministers or for their involvement in passing of the Broadcasting Authority Law. Two resigned, one fell out of favor for a time, a fourth was denounced as hostile, a fifth left the party (but has now returned).
In the Netanyahu-Ayoub Kara recordings aired this week on Channel 13 News by reporter Sefi Ovadia, the former is heard chastising, reprimanding and screaming at his communications minister about matters related to three erstwhile commercial channels – 20, 10 and 2 – and to the “Cable and Satellites Council,” as Kara called it.
When the name of the justice minister at the time, Ayelet Shaked, is mentioned in connection with an item published in TheMarker, the prime minister explodes like a firecracker. “Tell me, have you gone crazy?” he screams at the miserable Kara, who stammers frightfully in an attempt to escape the inferno. “Shaked is ‘one of ours’?” Netanyahu retorts at Kara’s slip of the tongue in reference to Shaked. “‘Ours’?!”
As some people have pointed out, Netanyahu never launched into a tirade like this at the health minister because of the inhuman overload in hospital wards, or at the transportation minister because of the traffic jams, or at the social welfare minister because of the way the National Insurance Institute abuses the needy. He channels his passions and his anger, indeed all his energies, solely into the realm of communications.
His media fixation has entangled him in two criminal cases (2000 and 4000). He moved up an election (2015) in order to protect a freebie newspaper that serves him loyally, and almost moved up an election because of the new national broadcasting corporation, whose establishment he tried to block. (At present it’s the channel that is least upsetting to him, but, in contrast to Channels 12 and 13, he could have eliminated it with a strike of the pen – clearly, he found it hard to resist the temptation.)
“I’m 80 percent certain that Sara was next to him,” one of his knowledgeable ministers told me about the December 2017 verbal assault on Kara. “Everyone who works with him can tell whether he’s speaking from the office, in which case he’s relatively calm, or from the house, in which case he’s totally crazed. She drives him up the wall. To calm her down and prove he’s serious, he calls whomever she’s upset with and screams at him.”
Netanyahu is not the first prime minister to shout at people. All of them have done it. Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert, Ehud Barak and Shimon Peres, and also Yitzhak Rabin, the guy with the short fuse who was quick to turn red and roar, but just as quick to settle down and get back to routine. The question is what they were shouting about and over what, for heaven’s sake, they were working themselves into a lather. Over the mention of Ayelet Shaked’s name in the newspaper, and over something that was meant to help Netanyahu pass legislation that he supported?
Here’s a story about another event. Details can’t be provided. It was a Shabbat morning, a lovely day. Mom is drinking lots of coffee, Dad is reading lots of newspaper – as Arik Einstein put it in his song. One of Kara’s predecessors was on a family vacation somewhere. The cell phone rang. It was the prime minister on the line. He had read some documents he’d taken home and discovered a name – among the list of members of bodies that supervise a certain communications organization – of a media person he didn’t care for. Not any of the usual or well-known suspects. Far from it.
The appointment in question was made professionally. It was decided by an impartial search committee headed by a judge, which chose the members of said supervisory council on the basis of professional considerations. The minister had no connection to it, but the screaming and shouting from the phone scattered all the vacationers within a one-kilometer radius. The boss accused the minister of nothing less than deliberate sabotage. Yes, you could even say it was an “attempted terror attack” against him and his family and his government.
Ministers and MKs term this the “Balfour effect.” Its symptoms are readily visible not only in real time – on weekends or in the evening – but also on Sunday morning, at the office. The strength of the storm gradually wanes as the hours go by, like Hurricane Dorian. It starts at Category 5, the most destructive, and then slowly weakens, finally ending as a tropical storm.