Analysis |

Peace Deals, Vaccinations and the Arab Vote: In First for Netanyahu, a Positive Campaign

In his frantic search for immunity, the premier puts incitement and fear-mongering aside ■ Meanwhile, he plays the puppet master with Bennett and Smotrich, but Yamina leader could yet prove the kingmaker

Yossi Verter
Yossi Verter
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Illustration.Credit: Amos Biderman
Yossi Verter
Yossi Verter

Ever since the 2000 election, about 20 years ago, the word peace, the dominant term of the previous decade, was a no-no in political campaigns. Not anymore. “The left blathers, Netanyahu makes peace,” proudly declares one of the first Likud campaign videos. This is somewhat reminiscent of the Labor Party’s defensive campaign in the 1990s – “Rabin makes history, the right is hysterical.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is extolling and praising the agreements he has signed with Arab countries far from our borders, depicting a new Middle East and speaking, his eyes sparkling, about the glorious future anticipated for the region. The man who said ,“we will forever live by our sword" has become a Shimon Peres clone.

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And it doesn’t end there. Netanyahu is an individual well-endowed with paranoia, a quality that has helped him shape his political identity as a prophet of doom, an engineer of dismal consciousness in campaigns focused on scare-mongering, scare-mongering and scare-mongering. In the current phase of his umpteenth campaign, he makes the appearance of having suddenly changed. The grimness has turned to glowing. The alarmist has become an optimist.

The crowning glory of course is the vaccines. The man hangs out near the conveyor belts at Ben-Gurion International Airport more than the porters. He does not let a day go by for the CEOs of Pfizer and Moderna without having a conversation with them. There, he very skillfully applies pressure, closes deals (at high prices and without transparency, but okay, it’s worth it to us) and runs to tell the gang. The social media gaggle (real members and the bots) pounce on every photo of a high-profile individual getting vaccinated, demanding he give thanks to the prime minister.

The media, which he has rendered shallow and lowly, humiliating and pulverizing them with all his might, are collaborating and helping him build the image of Gulliver in the land of the Lilliputians. That’s what there is, at the moment, until he deigns, as is his wont, to set foot in their studios only in the final stretch in a blitz of interviews to which they will all devote themselves. Like buildings that mark their roofs with a big red X for the benefit of the warplanes.

Pro-Netanyahu protesters in Holon, October 2020Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

The Likud campaign’s slogan of “many politicians, one leader” is positive in spirit. It is forward-looking, towards the rising sun: Let us forget the year of horrors of completely failed management, political interests and a toxic atmosphere. Let us forget the corruption and the trial and the governmental chaos and let us march shoulder to shoulder, impeccably inoculated, of course, toward the future that awaits us A-L-L.

The scary messages have been stored away, for now. In their stead, we are getting a liberal optimist, a borderline hippie, who gallivants to capitals in the Arab world and Arab towns in Israel. He waxes enthusiastic about their inhabitants, the people who are eager to destroy us, as we may remember. Like songwriter Naomi Shemer, he will sing to us: “I wanted to embrace everyone there.” On his shoulders are baskets full of vaccines and on his lips words of acceptance and inclusion – and declarations about all the good that still lies ahead. On his next visit to the Israel Defense Forces, perhaps he will stick a flower into the gun barrel of a tank.

His courtship of the Arab Israeli public is a masterpiece of naked cynicism, even for him, which leads to the hackneyed expression “committing hara-kiri.” Were it not for the Knesset seats he lacks for parliamentary immunity or the French law that would prevent a sitting prime minister from being prosecuted, Netanyahu would never have discovered that in Israel there are also Arab towns; during the past two weeks he has visited three of them, abuzz with words of love and reconciliation more syrupy than the sweetest baklava.

For lack of space, it is impossible to enumerate all the deeds and utterances of this man, the most racist Israeli prime minister ever. Incidentally, even when he wasn’t prime minister or campaigning, he made statements which he now pretends were never said. Thus, in 2003 he said at the Herzliya Conference that the Palestinians are not a threat in his view but “the Arabs of Israel are the real demographic threat to the state.”

In the recent election campaigns, when he suspected that Kahol Lavan would be helped by votes from Arab Knesset members, he lost all restraint. Racism and hatred of Arabs dominated both the official and the underground Likud campaigns. Everything was dictated by the inhabitants of the official residence on Balfour Street in Jerusalem – the major source of inspiration. His speeches were excoriating, his texts terrifying.

The leftists certainly have not been able to complain about the new direction, even though its motives are transparent: What their politicians have always been afraid to do so as to avoid being smeared by the Likud filth machine for loving Arabs and hating Jews – Netanyahu will do, from the diving board. So it was when he shook Yasser Arafat’s hand, and when he recognized a Palestinian state and when under American pressure he froze construction in the settlements in the territories.

His strategy (which, it must be said, is intelligent) is aimed not only at picking up another Knesset seat or two. That would be the bonus. The main target from his perspective is to make the vermin of his own making kosher in the eyes of his voters so that after the election he will be able to hitch a few Arab lawmakers to his vaccinations/French law wagon. On no realistic map does he have a majority without them. Most probably the potential partners would be MK Mansour Abbas and his people from the United Arab List, which is currently a part of the Joint List.

A demonstration against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during a visit to Nazareth, January 13, 2021.Credit: Rami Shllush

Netanyahu habitually lies: If he were to have gone for a diplomatic move vis-à-vis the Palestinians, there wouldn’t be indictments against him. As if that were what interests the people on the ideological right who have conducted the investigations into the cases for which he’s been charged – Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit and former Police Commissioner Roni Alsheich. Apart from an unrestrained campaign against the law-enforcement system, he is playing for time.

With his lean legal team and the renewal of his trial that has been postponed time after time, during the past month he has made a number of moves the entire aim of which has been a further postponement of the trial. Most of these moves are barren, and all of them could have been made much sooner. Most defendants want their trials to go ahead as quickly as possible to seek justice and clear their names. Netanyahu is doing all he can to postpone the end – until he is afforded, maybe, the opportunity to write and ending on his own terms.

The nationalist split

It was a bolt out of the blue, admitted Yamina MK Naftali Bennett. The way in which MK Bezalel Smotrich broke away from his party, by announcing it the studio of the consumer affairs television program “Savings Plan” (!) caught him unawares. He had believed it would be possible to replicate the current format: slots 3, 6 and 10 for representatives of the National Union party on the list for the 24th Knesset, as well. However, Smotrich demanded more: four slots out of the first eight. He had, says Bennett in private conversations, another, incomprehensible demand: that I shut down the religious Zionist party Habayit Hayehudi, another part of the Yamina alliance. I said to him: Come on, what do you want from me?

As we have assumed in these pages in recent weeks, he, too, believes that the long arm of the prime minister has again, like the witch Baba Yaga in the Russian folktale, stirred a pot that doesn’t belong to him. It was Netanyahu who pushed Smotrich to take extreme positions in the negotiations. His fingerprints are all over each and every one of the junctions. The Likud chairman is aiming for a small Yamina, with a big Smotrich inside, so that after the election the latter will be able to pull his people out of it and cross the road to the government. Alternatively: He could run independently with Itamar Ben-Gvir’s very far right Otzma Yehudit, and maybe also Rabbi Tzvi Tau’s party Noam, which is mega-extremist in and of itself. This coalition would bring in at least four Knesset seats, insh’Allah. Netanyahu’s chances of obtaining an immunity bloc of 61 would increase.

Or not, or this gamble will fail and tens of thousands of right-wing votes will go down the drain of history, along with Netanyahu’s dream of a sixth term in office and an exemption from his trial. From now on, says Bennett, Bezalel is Bibi’s problem. He can have the honor of arranging hookups for him. He can go to the trouble of dragging him across the cutoff point for representation in the Knesset.

Bennett’s attitude toward Smotrich is completely transactional. There is no love lost between them. He wants the partnership to continue in order to reduce the number of fronts he has to contend with. Which cannot be said of his colleague MK Ayelet Shaked. It’s fair to say that she is disappointed. And hurt. She really believed in the initiative. She was Smotrich’s most enthusiastic defender in Yamina. She said respectful things about him, praised his seriousness and diligence and applauded his service as transportation minister.

Naftali Bennett, Ayelet Shaked and Bezalel Smotrich in the Knesset, Jerusalem, July 8, 2020Credit: Adina Valman/Knesset Spokesperson

She also had a personal motive for continuing the partnership: She believed that running together would produce enough votes for Yamina to return her to the helm of the Justice Ministry. Now, without the religious-nationalist -messianic anchor, the minister’s office on Salah-a-din Street is receding away from her.

Bennett’s position in this election is, on the one hand, promising and on the other, threatening. Without him, none of the candidates will be able to form a government. He is the one who will tip the scale, he is the kingmaker. If Yamina completes Netanyahu’s majority of 61, the prevailing assumption (which Bennett rejects with the statement that “they are all mistaken”) is that the chairman of Yamina will go along with him. However, if current opinion polls prove prescient, Netanyahu will not have 61 and the just-not-Bibi bloc (including the Joint List, of course) will have a majority, and then Bennett will be in quite a pickle: Either he links up with Gideon Sa’ar, Ron Huldai, Yesh Atid chairman Yair Lapid, Yisrael Beiteinu chairman Avigdor Lieberman and all the rest – or Israel will head a fifth election and Netanyahu will easily be able to finger Bennett as the main person to blame for that.

The top brass

Before Sa’ar’s departure from Likud, when Bennett was still intoxicated by the high-altitude air of more than 20 Knesset seats, he held meetings, separately, with Kahol Lavan chiefs Benny Gantz and Gabi Ashkenazi. They asked that he look into possibilities of joining up.

Bennett and Ashkenazi had cultivated a good relationship during the brief period when the former was defense minister and the latter was chairman of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee. Bennett also feels sympathy for Gantz.

Gantz and Ashkenazi appealed to Bennett to break away from the hard-line Orthodox religious branch of Yamina, which colors the party in shades of racism and messianism. If you ever want to become prime minister, he was told, get out from under Smotrich’s radioactive ceiling. As long as he’s with you, you’ll never be considered all-Israeli.

In effect, they offered Bennett themselves as an alternative to Smotrich as a way of getting enough votes. Kahol Lavan would supply him with the legitimization of two former IDF chiefs of staff (actually, now one, with Ashkenazi having left Kahol Lavan). Bennett didn’t agree. He certainly didn’t see Sa’ar coming.

In any case, now there is no possibility for such a merger, even with Smotrich splitting from Yamina: Bennett isn’t willing to rule out joining Netanyahu, Gantz won’t even let it cross his mind and Ashkenazi is leaving for a “time out,” as he cautiously put it.

In the coming election, Ashkenazi will vote for Kahol Lavan. He still believes in the idea and the path. He probably believes in Gantz less so, but relations between them are decent-plus; they talk often and meet up.

Ashkenazi stands on his dignity. On Monday evening, hours before Gantz’s “I was mistaken” speech, Gantz phoned him and briefed him on the address. “He deceived me, he deceived all of you, he deceived us one time too many,” Gantz fumed about Netanyahu. “During the pandemic he has continued to incite, to divide, to provoke quarrels, to tear us apart from within.”

Ashkenazi supported every word, and the style as well. He believes that if Gantz had spoken like that after the first time Netanyahu violated the coalition agreement, Kahol Lavan might be in a different place today. The party fell apart not because it joined the government (from its leaders’ perspective they had no real alternative), but because it was crushed time and again under the rules of the game that Netanyahu dictated.

Ashkenazi is looking back – not in anger but in sorrow – at the fact that he and his colleagues didn’t put Netanyahu in his place. At the missed opportunity, the lost chance, the tremendous miss, the mistakes that were made – by Gantz, mainly.

If Gantz had gone home, Ashkenazi would apparently have stayed and led Kahol Lavan into the sunset. Or, who knows, into a new sunrise.

It doesn’t seem to him that this is going to happen. He remembers what Gantz told him more than two years ago when they met in Jaffa, before Gantz jumped into the political waters: “I’m getting into politics for about a decade.” As far as Ashkenazi can tell, Gantz is still there.

Anti-government protesters hold posters with the faces of Gabi Ashkenazi (left) and Benny Gantz (cetner) at a demonstration in Jerusalem, August 15, 2020.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

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