Analysis

Netanyahu Has Cunningly Navigated the Mideast. Israeli Voters Will Reward Him

Corruption takes a back seat to indisputable diplomatic achievements ■ Israeli fake accounts network takes a page from Soviet propaganda

Russian President Vladimir Putin shakes hands with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during their meeting in the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia, Thursday, April 4, 2019.
Alexander Zemlianichenko,AP

The grand finale of the Likud election campaign was held in Moscow on Thursday. It is no wonder that Netanyahu did not adopt the suggestion of his campaign headquarters staff to hold a large rally at Rabin Square before the election – and not only because of the fraught history of the site. In the end, it was decided to hold a small rally in Jerusalem on Sunday.

Why worry that the square in Tel Aviv will be full of supporters when instead there’s the option of holding a joint press conference with the president of Russia in Moscow? As in the past several weeks, it is Netanyahu who is dictating the rules of the game in the election campaign. He has therefore been able in the past few days to launch a blitz of interviews, after four years in which he saw to it not to give interviews to any media outlet that he himself didn’t fully control.

Putin and the election

The invitation from Putin wraps up a triple play for Netanyahu in less that two weeks: a visit to U.S. President Donald Trump, who gave him the gift of American recognition of Israel’s sovereignty in the Golan Heights (but which was somewhat overshadowed when Hamas forced him to cut short his visit to Washington due to the escalation in Gaza). Then Netanyahu hosted of his new friend Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro in Jerusalem, followed on Thursday by the summit in Moscow, just after the return of Baumel’s body.

Russia is going with the likely winner in the election in Israel and it is prepared to help him, within the limits of its own interests. It is not expelling the Iranians and Hezbollah from the Syrian Golan, and it is continuing to prepare for the transfer of the advanced S-300 long range surface-to-air missile batteries to full Syrian control. But if Israel is asking for a little help on a humanitarian issue – why not? We can count on Putin to see to it that he gets a fitting quid pro quo for his generosity at some point.

The message that Netanyahu’s Likud party wants to convey through this series of meetings is transparent. Israeli hospitals are collapsing under the patient load, public transportation is lagging, personal security in Gaza border communities is shaky, but when Israel turns to the international arena, Netanyahu, his experience and his connections have no real competition. Only Bibi can do it. 

A similar claim, incidentally, was made towards the end of the terms of office of two of his predecessors, Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert. The later basked in affection of foreign leaders all the way to the courthouse and then prison.

Netanyahu’s record in the diplomatic and security arena is not the total disaster that is described by his rivals. The prime minister was smart enough early on to understand the dangers inherent in the Arab Spring.

He strengthened relations with the Sunni countries considerably, from Egypt to the Gulf. He (usually) managed not to get involved in the civil war in Syria, and for the most part, he took care not to get dragged into unnecessary wars in Gaza. Even in Operation Protective Edge in 2014, he did not cave into pressures from inside his cabinet to invade the entire Gaza Strip.

The international community’s nuclear agreement with Iran, which Netanyahu opposed, was developed by President Barack Obama’s administration to a large extent in response to Israel’s threat to attack Iran’s nuclear installations. And Trump’s withdrawal from the treaty, spurred by his friend in Jerusalem, hasn’t so far led to the disaster that he was warned about. The renewed American sanctions have also affected European companies and have increased the economic pressure on the regime but for the time being, they have not scuttled the agreement itself, as Netanyahu would have liked.

Inaction on the Palestinian issue

The most persuasive claim against Netanyahu in the diplomatic-political area is the total lack of action on the Palestinian issue. The odds of obtaining a final status solution are minuscule (even in the opinion of his rival, Benny Gantz), but the suspension of the peace process, along with extensive construction in West Bank settlements, is gradually putting the kibbosh on the vision of the two-state solution that Netanyahu momentarily adopted under pressure from Obama 10 years ago.

However, the main argument for ending Netanyahu’s long period in office has to do with his conduct on the domestic front, not his handling of foreign affairs. The serious suspicions against him in a string of criminal cases, along with Likud’s orchestrated attacks on public servants and the systematic damage to the rule of law, are sufficient to lead to the conclusion that Netanyahu has played a key role in corrupting Israeli society over the past decade. He has surrounded himself with unworthy people, encouraged an enterprise of flattery over him and his family and has consistently fueled discord and hatred among various segments of society. And all of this has accelerated and intensified, as if in some giant centrifuge, in the run-up to the election.

The figure of Netanyahu has been with us for so many years that it is sometimes difficult to distinguish between the original and the imitation on the satirical television show “Eretz Nehederet,” which doesn’t appear to bother his voters at all. The two merge into a single character: On the television show, Netanyahu is depicted as a smiling and fraudulent schemer, who always has the upper hand even when his efforts at deception are clearly evident to everyone. In “life itself” as he calls it – that is, in the campaign – he acts as if he is the political incarnation of King Midas. Any accusation from his rivals somehow becomes an electoral asset, exploited to his benefit.

In recent months the public opinion polls gone the gamut, from a smattering of hope for a victory by his rivals after the Yair Lapid and Benny Gantz teamed up, and then back a clear advantage for the right-wing bloc. If the public opinion polls aren’t wrong again, they apparently reflect what the majority of Israelis think about their leader: In the Middle East, a manipulator is necessary. The gravity of the criminal acts of which the prime minister is suspected is outweighed by the feeling of security he inculcates in his supporters in facing the dangers from outside. And by this measure, Gantz – dignified, statesmanlike, fair, a bit awkward – who wouldn’t meet even the most elementary threshold of swindling.

A decision on indictments

The left’s hopes of removing him from office will apparently have to again focus on Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit, who is planning on holding a pre-indictment hearing for Netanyahu’s defense lawyers this summer and to make a decision on indicting Netanyahu at the beginning of next year. People who are familiar with investigation material that isn’t being made public before the election, as Mandelblit’s decided would be done, say the material is very damaging to the prime minister’s line of defense.

The recent revelations in the case of company shares that Netanyahu received from his cousin Nathan Milikowsky could complicate his situation further. Waiting in the wings is also Case 3000, involving alleged corruption in Israel’s purchase of submarines and patrol from Germany, into which the attorney general and the police have only conducted a limited inquiry. The stench from the boats and any possible links to the country’s natural gas deals have not yet been fully investigated.

Going by the hints that Netanyahu has been dropping in his recent interviews, the legislative effort to stop the clock on the investigations is expected to be renewed after the election. The results depend on the attorney general’s backbone, the conduct of Netanyahu’s coalition partners and the resoluteness of the Supreme Court justices.

Alleged social media manipulation

In what appears to be inadequate media treatment, this week’s reporting on alleged social media manipulation in service of the Likud campaign has been buried. The pretensions of exposure of a huge digital plot was replaced by public debate over the right to curse and vilify in social media.

The Central Elections Committee hearing on the matter became a farce, mainly revealing the ignorance regarding internet technology on the part of the committee and Kahol Lavan’s representatives. The left and the center came across trying to silent dirty talk, as if that were the most urgent issue in the final weeks of the election campaign.

>> Gantz-Netanyahu faceoff is suddenly infested by fake social media accounts | Analysis

Are bots being used in more distant circles, as far away as Indonesia and the Philippines, to echo Netanyahu’s messages and those who support them? Possibly. But what was revealed after the publication of the investigation is that at the center of the activity are flesh and blood Likud supporters who see Netanyahu as a last barricade, almost a divine messenger, against the return of what they describe as “the Oslo disaster” – evacuation of settlements and exploding buses. 

If indeed someone is operating another, hidden system in support of Netanyahu, he or she was not exposed in the investigative report this week and no connection was found between such a person and those in charge of Likud campaign messages.

In this context, it is interesting to go back to an event that was quickly forgotten,which took place a relatively short time before the announcement of early elections. On November 14th of last year, Avigdor Lieberman announced his resignation as defense minister, in protest against the government’s policy in the Gaza Strip. Lieberman resigned from the government after Netanyahu rejected his recommendation of a harsher response to the firing of about 500 rockets and mortar shells from the Gaza Strip into the Negev.

A false report from Harvard

A few hours after Lieberman’s resignation, Ran Bar-Zik reported a strange story in Haaretz. An internet site that depicted itself as the official site of the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, a prestigious research center at Harvard University, published a report of a lecture delivered a few days earlier by former Mossad chief Tamir Pardo.

Pardo, the report claimed, said in the lecture that Lieberman is “a Russian spy” and that this is behind the tension between him and Netanyahu.

Pardo supposedly even anticipated a few days in advance that Netanyahu would fire Lieberman.

A short investigation found that this was fake news of a dangerous sort. Pardo did indeed appear at the Belfer Center, but he never said those things about Lieberman. And although the design of the site was indeed very similar to that of the real Belfer Center, the address was slightly different and promoted a site that distributed a fake news item. Someone put together a fraudulent operation here that certainly must have cost a pretty penny.

On the basis of an old and discredited rumor to the effect that Lieberman’s origins testify to him being a Russian agent, a plot was constructed. To that end, the story was superimposed on a lecture that Pardo indeed delivered, in a closed forum (which required a close knowledge of the Belfer timetable), a site was fabricated and use was made of a (fictitious but long-standing) Twitter account from which tweets were sent to journalists to draw their attention to the “news item” about Pardo’s remarks. The move failed because Haaretz identified the site as counterfeit and also contacted Pardo, who denied the statements entirely.

Whom did this fraudulent, sophisticated and relatively expensive effort serve? It is doubtful that it was the Russians. First of all, Lieberman is not an agent of theirs. And secondly, even if he were (entirely hypothetically), why would they expose him? It seems there was a diversionary action involved here, which if it hadn’t been exposed would perhaps have succeeded in drowning out Lieberman’s criticism of the policy in Gaza. This brings to mind the old diagnosis of Soviet propaganda: They aren’t pursuing a propaganda effort so that we will believe in something. They are using propaganda so that we will not believe anyone or anything.