Netanyahu fights best with his back against the wall

Fortunately for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the multiple crises hitting both Israel and his campaign may light a fire under the right.

al-monitor Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu chats with his party members after delivering a statement in Ramat Gan, Israel, Sept. 10, 2019. Photo by REUTERS/Amir Cohen.

Topics covered

cameras, rockets, facebook, likud, israeli elections, israeli politics, benjamin netanyahu

Sep 11, 2019

Rocket sirens started wailing in the south of Israel on Sept. 10 while Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was speaking at a rally in the city of Ashdod. Netanyahu was recorded following his security detail off the stage as soon as the sirens sounded.

The footage, broadcast live on Facebook, vanished minutes after it went up, but it will likely follow the prime minister until the election is over next week on Sept. 17. In this age of social media, not even the fastest-acting spokesperson could erase the images that became the basis of viral videos produced and posted by his political opponents. One week before this eventful election, Mr. Security himself took a serious hit live on the air. He came under attack by a barrage of rockets fired from Gaza, the kind of electoral blow not even an experienced campaigner could have foreseen. Though Netanyahu went back to finish his speech and was even received with loud cheers, the incident put a damper on the whole event.

Nevertheless, what happened may not actually harm Netanyahu. The prime minister’s humiliation by Hamas and the way his political rivals have been using it against him are evoking all sorts of emotions in the Likud and rallying his supporters around him. In general, security incidents in an election campaign tend to strengthen the right, so it is fairly safe to say that the center-left parties will not benefit from what happened. On the other hand, they did get an opportunity to embarrass Netanyahu, and they milked it for everything it was worth. The Blue and White Party was quick to release a video of former Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi, who was also appearing at a rally in the south of Israel when the rockets were fired. Unlike Netanyahu, Ashkenazi continued with his speech, declaring, “We are not afraid! I am not afraid of Hamas or Hezbollah. That is the answer.” The fact that Ashkenazi has no security detail so was not forced to listen to instructions from the Shin Bet to evacuate the site was ignored in the heat of the evening’s political squabbling.

Netanyahu's Ashdod appearance followed his press conference that afternoon at which he promised to annex the Jordan Valley and the northern shore of the Dead Sea. His spokespeople had announced in the morning that Netanyahu would be making a dramatic statement, leaving press and politicians alike to spend the next few hours guessing and offering assessments. Pundits sat in television studios, waiting for the drama to unfold. There may not have been any real drama, but once again Netanyahu managed to divert attention from his criminal cases. In the end, he sold his listeners a promise without the backing of an American message, even though his remarks were coordinated with the White House well in advance. All the senior members of the Likud were invited to the press conference. When it was over, they were quick to release supportive statements of their own and congratulate Netanyahu on his achievement, presenting a united front.

Yet while the Likud and the right may have stood behind Netanyahu, it meant ignoring a senior White House official who stated that there has been no change in policy regarding the Jordan Valley. On the other hand, Netanyahu came into the crosshairs of his political rivals, who accused him of empty electioneering and spin. “A prime minister who is already up to his neck in criminal investigations has no public or moral mandate to decide on such momentous issues for the State of Israel,” tweeted former Prime Minister Ehud Barak.

Netanyahu doesn’t care about these reactions. Nor is he concerned about reports by the news from Washington not being as good as he would like: In a briefing to reporters, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo confirmed that President Donald Trump would be willing to meet with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. All the prime minister cares about from now until the election next Tuesday is his voters on the right, and every video, statement and spin from his campaign is intended to rally their ranks.

This is no ordinary election campaign. This time, Netanyahu faces an especially high hurdle. Not only does he need the right-wing and ultra-Orthodox parties to come out of the election with 61 seats, he also needs to ensure that the Likud is the largest party. It is a difficult task, but it is still possible, because the electorate needed to do it does exist. All Netanyahu has to do is convince those potential voters to get out and vote. It means setting a fire under the Likud and the right with a sense of urgency. He needs to get across to them that his hold on power is in real danger.

This objective lay behind the camera bill. The law was intended to allow partisan election observers to photograph voters in polling stations in an effort to prevent voter fraud. The law targets Arab voters based on the claim that voter fraud is especially prevalent in Arab areas. This is one way that Netanyahu hopes to reduce the number of voters in the Arab sector and the size of the center-left bloc.

Netanyahu pushed for this troubling law, which reeked of racism and was opposed by the attorney general himself. It was supposed to be fast-tracked but was rejected by the Knesset’s Regulatory Committee because of Avigdor Liberman’s sharp opposition. Yet while Netanyahu may have lost in committee, he benefited from intense media coverage and got to depict Liberman as having joined forces with the Arabs and the left. Netanyahu is doing everything he can to win back right-wing voters. On Sept. 12, Netanyahu is scheduled to leave for an official visit to Russia, where he will meet with President Vladimir Putin in a clear effort to win the support of Liberman’s Russian-speaking voters.

Polls released Sept. 10 have Netanyahu approaching 61 seats, but close will not be good enough. In the days remaining until the election, Netanyahu will focus his campaign on the right. Netanyahu is making a point of getting out into the field frequently. He has at least one campaign event per day, and between them he shows up in malls and meets people on the beach, broadcasting it all live on Facebook. He believes that the better Likud voters sense the crisis he is facing, the better he will be able to motivate them to vote.

Netanyahu has proved in the past that he is at his best with his back against the wall, and that’s where he is now. It would therefore be a mistake to take all his spin as a sign of desperation, as if his fate were sealed. In most cases, that is what gets his supporters to fight most passionately on his behalf.

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