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Netanyahu’s smear campaign leaves Gantz muddied

Vicious rumors and fake news have succeeded in smearing the Blue and White’s leadership and helping the Likud draw even in the polls.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is fighting tooth and nail for his job and his life. He's taking no prisoners; he's not stopping on red. He has given an order to crush his rival, Blue and White leader Benny Gantz, to pummel his image and turn the former army chief into a lame duck, a weakling unfit to run the affairs of state.

Netanyahu’s Likud, awash with money and other resources, is throwing everything it can at Gantz. Nothing is out off limits, including rumors and reports, some anonymous, about the contents of Gantz’s mobile phone falling into Iranian hands, vile allegations about his sexual activities and his military career. The real “ace” of Gantz’s Blue and White, the popular former military chief Gabi Ashkenazi, has also been selected for similar “treatment.”

“We did not believe it would work for them, but it is working and having an effect,” a senior Blue and White source told Al-Monitor, speaking on the condition of anonymity. “We thought that we should respond to all this muck by presenting a responsible party with a level-headed leader who refuses to be dragged down into the sewers and to stoop to the level of the Netanyahu supporters. Well, we may have been wrong.”

Over the past week, the Likud has drawn even with Blue and White in the polls after lagging behind the centrist party throughout the campaign, and in recent days it has opened up a lead over its center-left opponents by one or two Knesset seats as part of the right-wing and ultra-Orthodox bloc. What worries Blue and White leaders even more is that some polls put Netanyahu within spitting distance of 58 Knesset seats and even 59 with his bloc.

“He is within reach of his target, which is 61 seats,” Ashkenazi told Al-Monitor. “If he gets there, it will be the end of Israel as we know it. We must prevent this from happening.”

The peak (so far) of the mudslinging campaign was reached Feb. 27, with elections three days away. That evening, the top-rated Channel 12 prime time newscast aired a recording in which Gantz’s senior strategic adviser, Israel Bachar, is heard saying in a private conversation, “He [Gantz] doesn’t have the courage to attack Iran,” and adding that Gantz’ refusal to permit a strike on Iran was a “threat to the people of Israel.” The recording in which Bachar, one of Gantz’s closest confidantes, challenges his capabilities and fitness for the premiership landed in the political arena like a cluster bomb.

Gantz and his people hurriedly shifted to damage control mode. Ashkenazi and former Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon, his two predecessors as Israel Defense Forces chief of staff and currently top Blue and White Knesset members, rushed to issue statements backing and praising their party leader’s stamina and courage as proven during his four decades in uniform. Other former military chiefs, including Gadi Eizenkot, were asked to do the same.

This all followed two particularly destructive days during which the web and social media were flooded with speculation and innuendo by a Netanyahu acolyte who claimed that Gantz had sent salacious sex videos and recordings to one of his lovers while commanding the 2014 war against Gaza. This abomination was also tweeted and pumped up by Netanyahu’s son, Yair Netanyahu, the ringerleader of the assault on Gantz. Supposedly, the contents of Gantz’s cell phone fell into Iranian hands, and the man who could be Israel’s next prime minister is thus vulnerable to blackmail by Israel’s archenemy. Any link between reality and this smelly concoction is pretty weak, but that did nothing to deter Netanyahu’s fans from celebrating the fake news and spreading it with vigor.

Blue and White responded too slowly and too late based on the incorrect assessment that the damage to Gantz would be minor and that the low level to which the Likud campaign had sunk would have the opposite effect of hurting those spreading the libel. Gantz's party has lost between three and five Knesset seats, not only to Labor and its allied parties on the left, but also to the Likud on its right.

Though late, the response by Gantz and his friends was plentiful. A powerful video in which six former heads of the vaunted Mossad and Shin Bet — Ami Ayalon, Efraim Halevi, Shabtai Shavit, Yuval Diskin, Carmi Gilon and Tamir Pardo — declare that Netanyahu’s continued hold on power constitutes a clear and present danger to Israel’s security, clips highlighting Netanyahu’s involvement in the so-called submarine affair and the tens of millions of shekels that his cousin Nathan Milikowski allegedly made from the sale of German submarines and other naval craft to Israel. Other videos dubbed Netanyahu as Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey’s authoritarian leader, who is greatly reviled in Israel.

The counter effort began on Feb. 26 and is planned to continue until election day, March 2, in a desperate bid to stem the electoral hemorrhaging and to at least restore Blue and White to a tie with the Likud, which would prevent either side from forming a government. Such a dead end appeared inevitable until a few days ago, but now it is the greatest hope of the Blue and White leadership. Netanyahu, as predicted Feb. 24 in Al-Monitor, has begun to wake from the dead, showing distinct signs of life.

What will tip the scales? Turnout. In the two elections in April and September 2019, voter turnout for Netanyahu was relatively low compared with that among centrist and left-wing voters. Netanyahu has learned a lesson from that and is investing a fortune in energizing voters to come out on election day and focusing on polling stations where turnout was particularly troubling for him. To that end, the Likud deployed a digital voter-monitoring app, Elector, which has already been hacked twice, leaking the names and data of millions of Israeli voters into cyberspace.

Netanyahu is undeterred by the current scandal. Nothing stops him. He will do anything to get the 61-seat Knesset majority he needs to form a government. The campaign for Israel’s third round of elections in less than a year appears to be the most powerful, fateful and explosive one since the founding of the state almost 72 years ago. That no one can say whether it'll be the last one this year is the worst of it.

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