Israel Pulse

For Netanyahu, all is fair in elections

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Article Summary
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu advanced the Camera Bill not solely to reduce the number of Arab voters, but to gain the support of radical-right voters.

Some media outlets described the clash that erupted in the Knesset Sept. 11 between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the Arab Joint List Chairman Ayman Odeh as “unusual.” Apparently, what made it so “unusual” was the idea that Odeh could walk right up to the prime minister while clutching his cellphone and start filming him up close in the most annoying manner. It may have lasted all of a few seconds, but it seemed a lot longer.

This heated encounter took place just as Netanyahu stepped down from the podium after delivering his “camera speech.” It was a sophisticated campaign speech, promoting the Camera Bill (for placing cameras in polling stations). A speech that summoned all the demons on the right by playing on their attitudes toward Israel’s Arab population. It also succeeded in painting Yisrael Beitenu Chairman Avigdor Liberman as collaborating with them. Netanyahu went a step too far, even by his own standards, by inciting against an entire sector of the population, but the political crisis he is facing is real, at least as far as he is concerned. What this means for him is that as of now, nothing is out of bounds.

It all happened before the Knesset voted on a seemingly innocent piece of legislation, supposedly intended to increase election oversight. But it was scheduled just a week before the actual Sept. 17 election, and it targeted the tender underbelly of Israel’s Arab population. By placing cameras in polling stations, the Likud was hoping to scare Arab voters and make them stay home. This already happened in the April elections, when the Likud placed hidden cameras in Arab polling booths.

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At first it seemed as if the whole thing was orchestrated only to help the right by lowering the voting rate of the Arab public. As the picture becomes clearer, however, it looked like this was just a secondary goal. Netanyahu has been running an intimidation campaign targeting the right, in an effort to stir up primal emotions that he knows exist among large swaths of this electorate, and certainly among the most extreme groups on the right. He is trying to scare them by implying that the Israeli Arabs would be coming en masse to vote, to topple the right wing and himself. In that sense, Netanyahu’s ultimate goal is to maximize the number of Likud voters.

It all came together on Wednesday evening, when it became clear that Netanyahu was calling on voters not to cast their ballots for Otzma Yehudit (Jewish Power), the radical-right party that serves as a home for followers of the late Rabbi Meir Kahane. In this election, Netanyahu needs the votes of the most extreme sectors of the population for himself. In order to win them over, he will need to pay a steep price to prove how serious he is. One example of this would be for him to incite against the Arab population.

Netanyahu knew that he lacked a majority to pass the Camera Bill, but the law itself didn’t really interest him. It just provided a backdrop for the perfect spin. He stood on the podium and sold the law as a magic tonic to prevent election fraud, and he did so with the skill of the smarmiest salesman. “How can anyone oppose taking photos with a cellphone like this, when we do it every day?” he wondered, while waving a cellphone about. “What makes a clean election? Transparency, and transparency means cameras. They make it impossible to tarnish the election.”

Knesset member Odeh heard him say this and decided to respond in kind. After all, he is also caught up in the midst of an election campaign. “I thought it was all part of the story,” he lashed out against him. Netanyahu showed restraint to this provocative act by Odeh, who came right up to his face, but a group of Knesset members from the Likud, led by Miki Zohar, charged at the camera-wielding Knesset member. This image of an Israeli prime minister threatened by an Arab member of Knesset is worth quite a bit to Netanyahu’s campaign.

Israel’s Knesset has known its fair share of fights, outbursts and exchanges of expletives and personal attacks, but it has never seen a scene like this, in which a member of Knesset physically “harasses” the prime minister. On the other hand, in an election as frenzied as this, in which a prime minister incites against the Arab population for the sole purpose of rallying the right, Odeh’s reaction should come as no surprise. Yes, Odeh broke all rules of decorum in his interaction with the prime minister, but he had no choice. Netanyahu broke out his unconventional weapons, so Odeh responded in kind.

This retaliatory action before the TV cameras by the head of the Joint List also served his interests with his own electorate. It could actually motivate masses of voters to get out and vote. There are even some who suggested there was some kind of guileful collaboration between the two men, both of whom hoped to benefit from the situation, but, of course, this was not the case.

Just before this clash in the Knesset, it was revealed that Netanyahu used his Facebook page to send a private message to his followers, saying that, “Arabs want to annihilate us all — women, children and men.” This was accompanied by a request for each of these followers to bring three potential Likud voters to the polling station on election day “to prevent the formation of a dangerous left-wing government with Lapid, Gantz, Odeh and Liberman.” The Likud claimed that the message was a mistake, but Odeh rejected this, tweeting that Netanyahu is “a psychopath with no boundaries who wants to see blood.”

It is, in fact, hard to believe that this was a mistake. Netanyahu is running a meticulous campaign, backed up by in-depth polls and research and managed personally by him. His sole target audiences are the Likud and the right, and he is trying to win their support by demonizing Israel’s Arab population.

Evidence of how far he went this time can be found in a moving Facebook post by former minister Michael Eitan, who has been a loyal member of the Likud party for the past 50 years. In it, he announced Sept. 12 that this time, he cannot bring himself to vote for the party. His remarks were devastating: “Netanyahu is making cynical use of the principles he learned from his legendary adviser Arthur Finkelstein, claiming that incitement against minorities like the left and the Arabs can help him in the election. The more he plays on racist tropes, the more he seems to accuse his political rivals of aiding and abetting the enemy and brands them as traitors.”

Eitan joins a long list of senior Likud officials from past years who have announced over the last few days that they will not be voting for the Likud. These include former minister Dan Meridor and Benny Begin, and former Knesset Speaker Dan Tichon. Netanyahu doesn’t seem to care. Apparently, he believes that the electoral utility of his actions will exceed any damage Likud veterans might cause.

Over the last few days, Netanyahu discovered that there was another advantage to the Camera Bill. It is succeeding in winning back voters from Liberman to the Likud. As soon as the chairman of Yisrael Beitenu announced that he would oppose the new law and, in doing so, prevented it from being passed, he was painted by the Likud as a collaborator with the Arab parties and the left. This is one way that Netanyahu is hoping to win back voters who left the Likud for Liberman.

It could prove devastating for the leader of Yisrael Beitenu. As absurd as it seems, Liberman may have been the first to recognize the electoral benefits that can be derived from inciting against Israel’s Arab population, but now he has been turned into a victim in this discourse by the campaign wizard himself, Benjamin Netanyahu.

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Found in: Israeli elections

Mazal Mualem is a columnist for Al-Monitor's Israel Pulse and formerly the senior political correspondent for Maariv and Haaretz. She also presents a weekly TV show covering social issues on the Knesset channel. On Twitter: @mazalm3

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