Yossi Levy, as Benjamin Netanyahu’s former media adviser, what’s your opinion of his new gimmick: canceling the election?
It’s not surprising; he has no qualms about any trick or shtick. Netanyahu makes a mockery of everyone; his survival and the continuation of his rule are the only thing that’s sacred. The reason for that is that the alternative, in his view, is more frightening than anything else.
Let’s start at the beginning. How did you meet Netanyahu?
In the late 1990s, I covered the investigations against him as the police reporter for [the daily] Maariv.
When did you start working for him?
It took time. In 2007, I worked with Avigdor Lieberman, who was then strategic affairs minister. Netanyahu saw me in the Knesset and asked me to come, after having rejected me previously.
That’s when he was leader of the opposition.
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People tend to forget this. Netanyahu, “the great magician,” brought the Likud party to an unprecedented nadir of 12 seats in 2006. As fate would have it, Lieberman resigned from [Ehud] Olmert’s government in early 2008, and a month or two afterward, I began working with Netanyahu. I was a senior aide to the leader of the opposition. Later, when he became prime minister, I was his media adviser and acting head of the National Information Directorate [a public diplomacy unit within the Prime Minister’s Office].
How was it in the opposition?
Fascinating. If the Kahol Lavan party wants to learn how to behave like an opposition, it should look at Likud of 2008.
We made Olmert’s life miserable. He resigned not just because of [Defense Minister] Ehud Barak and [Foreign Minister] Tzipi Livni, but also as a result of enormous public and media pressure. Some of the things Netanyahu said back then about Olmert – we wrote together.
Like, “A prime minister up to his neck in investigations can’t function. He has no moral or public mandate to make fateful decisions, and there is a concern that he’ll make decisions on the basis of his personal interests rather than the national interest”?
I’m proud of that. It was the right thing – to get rid of Olmert peacefully and for Netanyahu to become prime minister. Olmert was a good prime minister, but the accumulation of investigations, along with his problematic management of the Second Lebanon War, had to lead to the end of his term. That isn’t happening today, unfortunately.
Because today, there’s nobody to pound on the table like he [Netanyahu] did back then. Netanyahu should have ended his own tenure in 2015 and left the stage regardless of the investigations against him – and even more so, because of those investigations ... There’s a cliché that says “power corrupts.” When you look at what has happened with Netanyahu over the last three-and-a-half years, you understand how this happens. He was an officer in [the elite Israel Defense Forces unit] Sayeret Matkal, a Zionist, value-driven, the son of a history professor. Every patriotic Israeli superlative applied to him. But his growing corruption in recent years has undermined almost every foundation on which Israel was built.
In the end, Netanyahu didn’t win a great victory in the 2009 election, but he became prime minister.
What are you talking about? We reached the summit of Mount Everest – from 12 seats to the Prime Minister’s Office. Livni won 28 seats and we got 27, but when we saw the results, we sat there and laughed.
Because Barak and Netanyahu had struck a deal with each other before the election. Barak, incidentally, is one of the few people whom Netanyahu admires, and also fears. He also had an agreement with the ultra-Orthodox and with Rafi Eitan of the Pensioners Party, which in the end didn’t pass the electoral threshold.
In 2009, unlike today, you marketed the “new Netanyahu.”
That was an excellent campaign. Its strategy was: This isn’t a new Netanyahu, but a more mature, grown-up Netanyahu, more focused, more able to unify, more inclusive, more responsible, a man who has learned from his mistakes and is now better suited [for leadership]. In interviews, he gave Olmert backing throughout Operation Cast Lead [the 2009 IDF operation in the Gaza Strip]. And the public loved this statesmanlike behavior – the fact that the leader of the opposition was backing a government that the public wanted to replace. I told him not to attack Olmert, because what’s the point – he’s going home in any case. So he only attacked Livni. This earned him points. He acted like a prime minister rather than leader of the opposition.
And today, it’s the opposite.
When you look at Netanyahu’s security cabinet in 2009 and his security cabinet today, you don’t need to explain anything. Back then, the security cabinet included Barak, Lieberman, Moshe Ya’alon, Benny Begin, Dan Meridor. And today? Miri Regev and Bezalel Smotrich. You look at the names and you realize his path. He turned a security cabinet seat into something like musical chairs. Israel’s holy of holies, where the most important decisions are made – he’s made it into a reward for fawning cronies. And then he undermines them.
He has this trait of undermining anyone who’s loyal to him. He scorns them. Loyalty is an unadmirable, not to say dog-like, trait in his view. Netanyahu had the potential to be one of our best and greatest prime ministers, that’s what’s sad. He has personal qualities and political power that no other prime minister had. But David Ben-Gurion thought about building something for the long term, 50 years ahead, while Netanyahu thinks only about himself, and only about tomorrow. He isn’t building anything for future generations. And he has no advisers.
What do you mean?
There’s no one there who has the gravitas, the seniority, the knowledge, the experience to tell him “you’re wrong.” He has no cadre around him. Ask who his national security adviser is, who his bureau chief is, who the head of the National Information Directorate is, who his political adviser is, who the director general of the ministry he heads is, who his chief of staff is. There are no people of stature – or only acting officials. This damages the country.
He appoints people with no background and no experience, people who are unsuitable. There’s nobody who dares to speak to him at eye level. It’s a gang of assistants, most of them young ... At first glance, this makes life easy for him, but the results are dismal. Being prime minister of Israel is the hardest job in the world. He needs to be surrounded by superstars, by the very best people in every field: security, politics, media.
What about Likud’s ministers and Knesset members?
They all look up at him from below. It’s a one-man show. The people in Likud whom he promotes aren’t the ones with enough gravitas to ever become Likud’s leader, much less prime minister. Most of those who did have potential are no longer in Likud. Where are the days of David Levy, Silvan Shalom, Meridor, Ya’alon? Those were people with honesty, integrity and common sense. It’s no accident that Benny Begin isn’t there, that Gideon Sa’ar was pushed aside. It’s sad that a person with such outstanding abilities has such a lack of confidence that he needs to surround himself with Smurfs.
Serious people can’t survive with Netanyahu. Either they leave or they become disreputable.
Netanyahu corrupts people. Look what he did to [Labor Party MKs] Avi Gabbay and Tal Rousso, to [former judges] Hila Gerstl and Oded Mudrik, to [former senior defense official] Ram Ben Barak. It always involves whatever is closest to your heart. They ask you, “What’s most important to you? The rule of law? No problem, take it. Whatever you want.” He has politically destroyed decent, honest people.
You worked with Gabbay in the last election.
I’m certain the discovery of the fact that he held negotiations with Netanyahu hastened his departure from politics. That was Netanyahu’s revenge: You didn’t help me, so I’m going to get back at you. He did the same to Shaul Mofaz, who was the IDF chief of staff and defense minister, and also to Barak and Ya’alon. At first, Netanyahu craved the love of the media, academia and artistic elites. But the moment he saw it wasn’t working, he began to oppose them; he reverted to the old Netanyahu.
That’s why he appointed Miri Regev as culture minister, Ofir Akunis as science minister, and Ayoub Kara as communications minister [so he could say]: “I’ll show you, you tzfonim [people from upscale north Tel Aviv], you Tel Aviv elites.” He knows Regev and Akunis better than anyone. In recent years, he has shown that nothing is sacred. People have forgotten that just five years ago, Netanyahu wanted to abolish the presidency, because someone whom he wasn’t crazy about was about to be appointed.
And now, people are saying he wants to be president.
I said that four years ago, and people told me I was crazy. Netanyahu has an organized, strategic plan to diminish democracy by weakening the gatekeepers – the police, the prosecution, the courts, the state comptroller – and by taking over the media. Not a day goes by in which he doesn’t elevate and fortify the walls of his reign by weakening these institutions. There are no red lines.
There’s never been a prime minister with power like he has. The cabinet and Knesset are already under his complete control. The executive and legislative branches have almost become a single branch of government. The only branch that’s still oppositional is the judiciary, and he’s weakening that. Now, he also has another brilliant trick.
There’s no police commissioner. There’s an acting commissioner. Anyone who wants to be appointed knows who does the appointing, so you don’t have to be a genius to figure out how to behave. I am worried that Aviv Kochavi will be the army’s last chief of staff. After him, there will be only acting chiefs of staff. It’s an ideal situation. This way you get someone who’s submissive, fawning and obedient. That’s also how it is with the media, which he holds by the throat.
This is also something that wasn’t done in a day. His Israel Hayom [freebie seen as Netanyahu’s mouthpiece], his TV Channel 20. He has footholds in all the major stations: Kan public TV, Channel 12, Channel 13. At Army Radio, aside from a few pockets of resistance that have shrunk, there’s no longer really any pluralism. There’s one program that features a sworn fan of Netanyahu on one side – and on the other side, one of his admirers.
Judaism in its essence revolves around arguments, challenges and clarifications, and in this case there’s a chorus of people who are competing over who can praise the leader more. Contrary to what people generally think, many of them aren’t right-wingers. Their loyalty is to Netanyahu. If they have to destroy Naftali Bennett, then they’ll destroy him. Or Lieberman. It’s all personal.
Some people say that to speak out in favor of Netanyahu is actually courageous, since all the elites are against him.
Fawning over the ruler isn’t courageous. Courage is coming out against the centers of power. And Netanyahu, over the past decade, has become the strongest power center – which doesn’t keep him from playing the robbed, persecuted Cossack. A country where it takes courage to criticize the ruler is a sick country. Today, almost every promotion in the media needs a signature from Balfour Street [the prime minister’s residence], and I’m speaking from personal knowledge: Netanyahu and his people have ordered several media outlets not to provide me with a platform. The media refrains from giving a platform to anyone who criticizes Netanyahu, unless he’s a leftist, and then it’s good for him.
Why is that good for him?
It helps him consolidate his own camp. Criticism in Haaretz is convenient for him. The great danger, in his view, is cracks within his own camp, a spark that ignites and then has to be extinguished quickly. Criticism from within is the real danger ... The critic must be silenced as quickly as possible, or he has to be put outside the camp’s bounds. At that moment, he becomes a leftist.
That’s what they did to Benny Gantz.
To everyone. Gantz is classic. How skillfully Netanyahu turned [Yair] Lapid and Gantz into a branch of Meretz. Look at how many simple but sophisticated tricks he has. He says, “The media is against me, and everyone who’s against me is a leftist. You wrote something bad about me? Well, clearly, you’ve proved that you’re against me and you’re a leftist.” You have to prove a priori that you don’t have a sister, as the saying goes. Otherwise you’re tainted. And go prove that you’re not a leftist.
That’s politics, what can you do?
Yes, but he has economic and political power that no one else has, and he translates it into media power. He has the ability to transmit messages through big megaphones and get them heard effectively. The social media era has helped him greatly. He can conduct tests, plant overt and covert messages and see how they’re received.
What about Kahol Lavan?
They are generally two or three steps behind him. When they get someplace, he has already been there. I’m convinced that on the day after Netanyahu, there will be complete chaos here.
Because he’s turned the state into a one-man show and hasn’t built anything for the future. At first, he ran Likud; today he runs all the parties in the governing coalition.
Let’s talk about his family.
To this day, and it’s been 10 years already, I haven’t told even a single story about them from my experiences.
Well, go ahead.
No. I’ve never talked about them and I don’t intend to change that. The public elects Netanyahu, not his family; the responsibility is his.
There are people who wonder whether he’s unbeatable.
His strategy in every field and every situation is always attack, attack, attack. Netanyahu embodies the cliché: He doesn’t defend, he doesn’t apologize; he always attacks – the media, the law enforcement agencies, the left. When you’re defending yourself, the question is whether you’ll lose one goal or five. When you attack, the question is whether you’ll score one or five.
There was a golden opportunity in the last election, and I doubt whether Kahol Lavan will manage to reproduce that achievement in the upcoming election. The same goes for Likud, incidentally, even though for Netanyahu, it’s more important to preserve the bloc. The only person who can beat Netanyahu is Netanyahu, with the mistakes he makes and his nonsense.
Did you quarrel with him?
No. We parted very amicably.
Then why did you leave?
As part of the reconciliation between Netanyahu and Yedioth Ahronoth publisher Arnon Mozes, a decision was made to bring in [Nir] Hefetz, who was close to Mozes, to serve as head of the National Information Directorate in my place. Netanyahu wanted me to be Hefetz’s No. 2, and I wasn’t willing. I knew what Hefetz is. I told Netanyahu, “You’ve brought a snake into the aquarium, and he’ll bite you.” In 2015, Netanyahu wanted me to run his campaign together with Hefetz. I didn’t want to.
What did Netanyahu say about the snake analogy?
He had the honesty to send someone to tell me I was right.
Essentially, Netanyahu and Mozes “slaughtered” you for their reconciliation feast.
I’m not downtrodden. I sleep well at night.
And does he?