Benjamin Netanyahu is enjoying every moment; even he can’t pretend otherwise. He’s onstage doing what he loves most: telling the story of his life. On the relentless speech circuit of the last two weeks he has looked happy, relaxed and even generous.
Uncharacteristically, he can’t stop complimenting the Likud ministers who join him as props in the front row. Every syllable of his body language projects calm as he leans on the lectern. There’s no memory of the angry and defensive prime minister of the last few months, the one who responded to the indictments against him or tried to justify his demand for parliamentary immunity. Gone is the derision of the pack of journalists who accompanied him abroad and bombarded him with pesky questions. This is Cool Bibi.
Over the last two weeks, since his whirl of trips to the United States, Russia and Uganda, Netanyahu has embarked on a strenuous series of election rallies – usually two, sometimes three an evening. Wherever he goes, he speaks to hundreds of people for nearly half an hour, sometimes longer.
Add to that the interviews that he has (finally) begun to give, his job running the country, the election campaign and of course the never-ending meetings with his lawyers, and it’s hard to comprehend how this 70-year-old – who has been in this race ever since he launched his diplomatic career nearly 38 years ago – can still do it. Yet no stress or pressure can be seen on his face when he addresses the adoring crowds.
Netanyahu in 2020 is on his legacy tour – a quest to cement his place in history. He seeks to plant in hearts and minds the certainty that without Netanyahu Israel wouldn’t be a cyberpower and Israelis wouldn’t be flying abroad every year on vacation. Without him, we never would have blocked Iran’s entrenchment in Syria. Without him, things wouldn’t be good here.
He trots out the economic reforms he made in his first term back in the ’90s, such as opening up the international phone-call market and allowing Israelis to take foreign currency abroad. He compresses his terms in office into one time frame, ignoring the fact that he lost the 1999 election and spent a decade out of office. He talks about “11 years facing hostile administrations” until the arrival “of my friend, President Donald Trump, a huge friend of Israel! I identified that he had a different approach” – as if only Netanyahu had the vision to see that Trump was different from his predecessors.
At no point does Netanyahu mention the corruption investigations against him. Not a word about the “witch hunt” and the arraignment awaiting him immediately after the March 2 election. But that’s where his mind is, which is why it’s so urgent for him to implant the myth that he’s indispensable to Israel. He knows this is the last time he’ll be dominating the stage and can speak uninterrupted. He already has an eye and a half on the history books.
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Netanyahu isn’t just fighting to win an election. This isn’t just his last desperate attempt to win a majority for a governing coalition that will emasculate Israel’s judiciary and law enforcement agencies. He’s fighting over what will be remembered of him. The speaking tour across the country is his last chance to build the Netanyahu legend before it’s dragged into Jerusalem District Court, where prosecutor Liat Ben Ari and the presiding judge, Rivka Friedman-Feldman, will dismantle it bit by bit. For Netanyahu, this isn’t just a battle for his political life and personal freedom. It’s an all-out war for Israel’s collective memory.
Born in the ’40s
In the late ’80s, Netanyahu imported to Israel the American concept of retail politics – of an election as a sales campaign. That tradition is alive and well in the United States, where the candidates for the Democratic presidential nomination are all on similar tours across the country. Bernie Sanders, Michael Bloomberg, Elizabeth Warren – and Trump – are all of a similar age or older than Netanyahu. The members of this bunch, each born back in the ’40s, are leaving the youngsters in the dust.
This long undulating campaign trail makes sense in the American electoral system, where individual states can play a pivotal role in the primary and general election for the White House. But in Israel, with six and a half million eligible voters in one big district or constituency, the efficacy is less clear.
Over the space of two and a half weeks, Netanyahu has held about 25 of these events; sometimes only a few hundred people are present. If he keeps this rate up until Election Day, he will have appeared in front of only around 20,000 people, probably less.
The speeches aren’t televised, but they can be watched – live or recorded – on Likud’s social media platforms, though it doesn’t seem that more than a few hundred watch an entire talk. From the comments viewers leave, most are either die-hard Likudniks or Netanyahu fans from places like America or India. They watch him spellbound without understanding a word. Some are obviously bots.
In previous elections, the frequency of Netanyahu’s public events was much lower. He launched his frenetic pace two months ago, in the days before the Likud leadership primary against Gideon Sa’ar. It made sense back then. Netanyahu was fighting for a much smaller and intimate group of voters: Likud members. Those were closed, almost family-like gatherings, often in the homes of Likud activists. But why go to such efforts and spend so much time now on events where the listeners are committed Likud voters worth barely half a Knesset seat?
This is part of Netanyahu’s increasingly desperate campaign to extract every possible vote from his potential base, just like his efforts on behalf of the taxi drivers' lobby, to try to somehow eke out a majority in the next Knesset. But the prime minister doesn’t look at all desperate. On the stage of local theaters and community centers, he seems at his best. Every appearance is a master class. A bravura performance for the pantheon.
Some elements in his speeches are consciously lifted from the Trump oeuvre, especially the staging. About 20 supporters sit behind him in the frame, always including three or four Ethiopian Israelis. (“The Ethiopian community has come home! To Likud!”) Some are holding small square signs with slogans like “Women for Netanyahu” or “Farmers for Netanyahu,” and the placards’ design is identical to the one used in the Trump campaign.
Netanyahu has also dabbled at Trump’s habit of inventing a demeaning nickname for each of his rivals. “Gantz is cute” – hamud – Bibi repeats in every speech about his main rival, Kahol Lavan chief Benny Gantz. “But he’s no leader.” Still, Netanyahu’s heart doesn’t seem to be in it and the nickname hasn’t caught on.
And when he gets up onstage, Netanyahu simply isn’t Trump. At a rally, Trump speaks with barely constrained rage, working his listeners into a frenzy of hate against his rivals. Netanyahu did that in the past, most notably in his 1999 campaign, but in 2020 he’s much more amenable, even friendly. If anything, these appearances are reminiscent of his very first campaign, when he came back to Israel in the late ’80s – buoyed by the success of his ambassadorial term at the United Nations – and toured Likud branches, presenting himself to the admiring party members.
Bibi the storyteller
Over the decades, we’ve become so used to praising Netanyahu as an ultimate speech maker, justifiably, that we’ve lost sight of what makes him such a master of rhetoric. It’s not only the basso profundo, the way sound bites trip off his tongue, and the detail and effort that go into every speech so that he doesn’t need the script that’s in front of him. (He only returns to it every couple of minutes, takes a glance and flips the page.)
In every speech, Netanyahu takes a dig at Gantz for his reliance on teleprompters. But the real secret behind Netanyahu’s speeches is that he’s much more than just a speech maker. He’s a storyteller. Every speech is the story of Israel and his own personal story woven together. It may not be a story of Israel that’s familiar to historians, but it’s the story of Netanyahu’s Israel.
Netanyahu sticks to a stump speech, with some variations over time. At the beginning of each appearance he connects the venue to his family history. In Herzliya, he tells the audience about his grandfather who immigrated to British Mandatory Palestine in the ’20s and lived in Rosh Pina and Safed before moving to the then-little settlement of Herzliya.
In Petah Tikva, he tells the crowd about his mother Cela Segal, who was born there in 1912, a few years before the Ottomans left. In Ramle, he rhapsodizes about his early childhood when the family would take a taxi on the old winding road from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv, with the obligatory stop for ice cream in Ramle. When he’s stuck without an anecdote, he enlists his wife: “I’ve been coming to Hadera for years with Sara.”
When appearing in a settlement, he’ll always reminisce about “navigating here with my soldiers in the Sayeret Matkal” – Netanyahu’s days in Israel’s most elite special forces unit feature heavily in these speeches. For decades, Netanyahu observed the unit’s code of secrecy and barely mentioned his military past. In this tour he talks about the night he almost drowned in the dark waters of the Suez Canal, dragged down by the heavy ammunition box on his back. He even alludes to the still-confidential mission from over 50 years ago in which his team lost their way and nearly froze to death on a snowy mountainside in enemy territory.
Once he has established his personal connection to the venue, he turns to the collective memory. “Do you remember [name of town] 10 years ago? What it looked like? Today [name of town] is an empire! Cranes! Interchanges! Towers! The whole country is an empire. The No 8. power in the world.” And it’s all thanks to the “best decade in the state’s history” under his leadership. Before that there was nothing.
Each speech contains three political sequences. The first is the electoral calculator. Netanyahu tots up the number of Knesset seats predicted for Gantz’s Kahol Lavan, “Peretz-Meretz” (Amir Peretz’s Labor-Gesher-Meretz alliance) and Avigdor “Lieberman, who long ago defected to the left.” He never calls the rival parties by their names.
Then he expresses confidence that his allies, the ultra-Orthodox parties, will remain by his side after the election. He waits for someone in the audience to shout the name of another erstwhile ally, “Bennett” – Naftali Bennett, who’s now defense minister.
With a look of derision Netanyahu says: “And even if half a party defects to Gantz” – he’ll never miss an opportunity to deride Bennett – “Gantz still doesn’t have a government without the Joint List” of Arab parties. Netanyahu will then do the calculations – sometimes with no help, sometimes with a whiteboard and a black marker (“I got this pen from Trump”), and sometimes the figures will be shown on a screen beside him.
Next he lists the many wonders of Trump’s “deal of the century.” “I discussed it for three years with President Trump and his team,” he boasts. Then it’s back to Gantz, who “says he’ll endorse the plan, but only with international consent.” At this point Netanyahu lists everyone Gantz would give a chance to veto the Trump plan – the United Nations (“I know the UN”), the European Union and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.
“Let’s say he convinces them, what about his own party?” Netanyahu then reels off the names of “left-wingers” in Kahol Lavan – Yair Lapid (“who wants to uproot 80,000 Jews from their homes” in the West Bank), Ofer Shelah, Yael German. Then Bibi pulls out his ace, “And let’s say he convinces them as well, Gantz still has to convince Ahmad Tibi and Ayman Odeh” of the Joint List.
The third monologue opens: “People tell me that it’s hard to vote a third time. It’s hard. It’s a bummer. You know what’s hard?” And now Netanyahu launches a litany of his achievements throughout his life – his army days, his ambassadorship at the United Nations, his hard battles with the trade unions and the media. All this leads up to “standing up to two hostile American administrations that just wanted you to retreat all the time – that’s hard! Walking five minutes to vote Likud isn’t hard.”
At this point Netanyahu asks the people in the audience to take out their smartphones and call up a friend or relative, a Likudnik who didn’t vote in the last election. Netanyahu is clinging to the myth of the “300,000 who stayed home in September” because they “thought we were going to win anyway.” They can change the result of the election, if only they come.
The problem is, it’s hard to find someone suitable among those 300,000. Nearly every time an eager listener comes up to the stage holding a phone, it turns out the person on the other end actually did vote Likud in September and just wants a chance to chat with the prime minister.
Telling the Democrats off
Alongside these sequences, Netanyahu repeats three apocryphal stories. One he claims to have heard recently in Tiberias: It’s about a rabbi whose rebellious student comes to him holding a butterfly closed in his hand and asks “alive or dead?” If the rabbi answers alive, the butterfly would be crushed. If he says dead, it would be released to fly away. The rabbi’s wise answer is a rousing message to Likudniks – “It’s all in your hand!”
The other two stories are chosen to demonstrate Netanyahu’s absolute commitment to Israel and the Jewish people. The first is about a meeting “in a European capital with a secretary of state” (almost certainly Madeleine Albright) who demanded Israeli concessions to the Palestinians.
“She said you have two hours and if you say no, we’ll go downstairs to the awaiting media and I’ll tell them that Israel is sabotaging the peace process. I answered her, ‘I don’t need two hours or two minutes. Let’s go down now and I’ll tell them that I represent a 3,500-year-old nation that’s fighting for its historical homeland and place under the sun.” (Not coincidentally, the latter phrase is the name of the Hebrew version of Netanyahu’s 1993 book, “A Place Among the Nations.”)
The third story is of “a very senior American personage” (probably John Kerry) who called him from Air Force One after Shimon Peres’ funeral and said “if you want a funeral like the one Peres had, you should start compromising.” To which Netanyahu claims he answered: “I’m not concerned about my funeral. I’m concerned about the funeral of my country!”
Some elements of the stump speech vary. In the first days of the tour, Netanyahu waxed lyrical about the trips he had just made to three continents. “To Washington, to Moscow, to Africa. What we did in one week they can’t do in a year. They can’t do it at all.” In the second week he began focusing more on his economic record, contrasting the “empire” Israel has become to the “trade-union state” it was before he came to power.
Fact checkers would have a field day with Netanyahu’s flight of financial fancy; his promises that Israel will soon overtake France and Britain in GDP per capita, his constant accusation that “Kahol Lavan wanted to keep the gas under the sea,” even though that party didn’t even exist when the country’s natural gas framework was voted on and some people who are now prominent Kahol Lavan members never wanted to keep the gas under the sea at all.
Netanyahu takes full credit for Israel’s high-tech-fueled prosperity, even though the decisions that led to major changes in Israel’s finances were made under prime ministers from Labor – the “economic stabilization plan” of the Peres government in 1985 and the founding of Israel’s venture capital industry by Yitzhak Rabin's government in 1993. Netanyahu has widely spread the myth that he alone is to be thanked for Israel’s economic success and that before he came along Israel only sold oranges to the world.
Netanyahu is much more interested in talking about the past than the present or his plans for the future. Even the Trump plan is referred to as something that has already been achieved. He riffs very quickly through the list of annexations in the plan, as if they’ve already happened. Last week, Likud presented six economic reforms it’s planning, but Netanyahu barely dwells on them for half a minute. How can life in Israel be any better in his empire?
He’s like an old band united for the last time on a grand legacy tour, playing the greatest hits instead of the last underwhelming album. This is classic Netanyahu, the Netanyahu who changed the face of Israel with his own two hands. He seeks out the youngest supporter from the group onstage: “How old are you? When were you born? You don’t remember” that there was a time before the age of Netanyahu, but this lucky kid was born into Netanyahu’s Israel and has only known peace and prosperity.
In his version of Israeli history, there are three crucial moments: the foundation of the state; the 1967 Six-Day War in which the missing parts of the historical homeland were restored; and now the Trump plan, which has already changed the entire paradigm between Israel and the Palestinians. “Until now, the world always demanded that we make concessions. Trump looked at the reality and understood that I was right, and now the Palestinians are the ones who have to make concessions.”
In his speech, Netanyahu only mentions two former leaders. The first is the state’s founder, David Ben-Gurion, who Netanyahu equates himself to. There’s no mention of previous prime ministers from Likud – not Menachem Begin, who despised Netanyahu’s father, or Yitzhak Shamir, who despised Bibi himself. Likud is Netanyahu. Israel is Netanyahu. The only other former prime minister he mentions is Ehud Olmert, who Netanyahu claims is Gantz’s adviser and visited Abbas last week “to foil the deal of the century.”
Netanyahu doesn’t mention the fact that Olmert went from the Prime Minister’s Office to Wing 10 of Maasiyahu Prison, but he’s obsessed with Olmert’s fate – a man remembered not as Israel’s former leader but as an ex-convict. Netanyahu knows his prospects of emerging from the March 2 election with a majority are vanishing.
His decision Tuesday night to challenge Gantz to a televised debate is tantamount to conceding imminent defeat. The last time he wanted a debate was in 2006, when Likud was about to be wiped out by the new Kadima party headed by Olmert. Now Netanyahu fears a similar fate to Olmert’s. But more than he fears losing in court and having to go to prison, he fears that this will overshadow everything he has done in life before that.