Launching his reelection bid in a mass rally in Afula last night, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu presented his usual litany of grievances and complaints against the media, the legal system and his political opponents. But while the speech didn’t generate sensational front page headlines, its harsh tone and ominous threats raised concerns that Netanyahu would once again deploy division and incitement as his campaign weapon of choice, further splitting an already fragmented Israeli society.
“We went through the greatest witch hunt in political history,” Netanyahu told thousands of jeering fans, referring to his pending legal indictments as well as the separate legal proceedings against his wife Sara. “And they spent $40 million on this witch hunt, $40 million. That's right, they spent $40 million, probably a hell of a lot more than that.”
“The only corruption was committed by the left, the fake news media and the people who provided the phony evidence against me – Benny Gantz and the left. It was an illegal attempt to overturn the elections and to subvert our democracy,” Netanyahu thundered.
He portrayed himself as the innocent victim of a ruthless and wide-ranging plot: “They went after my family, my business, my finances, my employees, almost everyone that I've ever known or worked with.” He went on to depict himself almost as a Jesus-like figure suffering for his flock, claiming that police investigations of his alleged bribery and breach of trust were an assault on his entire religious-right wing political camp.
“They are really going after you. That's what it's all about, not about us, it's about you,” Netanyahu said. “They tried to erase your vote, erase your legacy of my great victory in April – the greatest campaign and the greatest election, probably in the history of our country – and they wanted to deny you the future that you demanded and the future that Israel deserves, and that now Israel is getting.
Netanyahu lambasted what he described as the “radical left,” albeit in harsher terms than ever before. “Our radical left opponents are driven by hatred, prejudice, and rage. They want to destroy you and they want to destroy our country, as we know it. Not acceptable, it's not going to happen. It's not going to happen.”
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Resorting to the scare tactics mode that worked so well for him in the previous two elections, Netanyahu stoked his crowd’s fears and anger by conjuring a horror scenario about the consequences of his defeat by the “anti-Israeli” left. “Just imagine what this angry left-wing mob would do if they were in charge of this country. Imagine if we had a leftist prime minister and a leftist Knesset in 2020. They would shut down your free speech, use the power of the law to punish their opponents, which they're trying to do now anyway, they'll always be trying to shield themselves.”
Showing a remarkable lack of self-awareness – as in the pot calling the kettle black – Netanyahu included in his divisive and inflammatory speech an accusation that it is actually the left that, “instead of bringing us together as one Israel, they want to splinter us into factions and tribes, they want us divided, not going to happen to Likud anymore, it's not going to happen.”
Netanyahu heightened concerns about potential constitutional crises in the wake of either his victory or his defeat on September 17. As he did following his victory in the April ballot, Netanyahu said that a second win in a row would not only be a reward for what he described as “the amazing progress we made,” but also a verdict on “the un-Israeli conduct of those who tied to undermine our great democracy and undermine you.”
Netanyahu is implying, in practice, that the election results should supersede and negate the investigations against him, as well as the decision of the attorney general to indict him, should he choose to do so.
“This election is a verdict on whether we want to live in a country where the people who lose an election refuse to concede and spend the next two years trying to shred our laws and rip your country apart,” Netanyahu said, whipping the crowd into a frenzy.
He rekindled the simmering flames of historic and ethnic resentments harbored by traditional Likud voters, especially North African Jews, against the supposedly Ashkenazi and elitist left, a strategy that has served him well in the past. “Our political opponents looked down with hatred on our values and with utter disdain for the people whose lives they want to run,” Netanyahu said.
He recounted the terms “mob” and “hooligans” and “amulet-kissers” used by leftist celebrities – which Netanyahu fully exploited in the past – to stir up familiar grudges. “They called you and us, do you remember this? They called us “chachchachim” (ruffians in Hebrew), that was a mistake. That was a big mistake, which no Likudnik will ever forget.”
Netanyahu didn’t forget to thank his good friend in the White House, Donald Trump – who many believe serves as Netanyahu’s current role model – for “repairing our cherished friendship with the U.S.,” moving the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem, recognizing Israel’s hold on the Golan Heights and abandoning the nuclear deal with Iran. “He withdrew the United States from the disaster – it’s disastrous – Iran nuclear deal and imposed the toughest-ever sanctions on the world’s number one state sponsor of terrorism.”
Commentators noted that Netanyahu is likely to tout Trump’s friendly attitude to Israel throughout the election campaign – and is likely to return the favor by continuing with the same line if he wins the elections – and throughout Trump’s 2020 reelection bid. The commentators also noted the eerie similarities between the speeches given by Trump and Netanyahu at the launch of their separate reelection bids.
“At a certain point,” one commentator noted, “one gets the impression that Netanyahu actually plagiarized Trump’s speech in Orlando. Some of the lines are completely identical,” he noted.