While his son ridicules the mass demonstrations on Twitter, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is exploiting the protests against him to unify his own camp.
By Mazal Mualem
“My father is a strong man," said Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s son Yair. "He sees the same scenes that we all see, those aliens from outer space at the demonstrations. It amuses him. It’s like entertainment. Sometimes I show him select scenes from the demonstrations. I try to make sure that they are not too crude. It entertains him. It even gives him a little strength.”
The interview, which aired Aug. 3 on the right-leaning Galei Israel radio station, seems likely to become one of the iconic moments of this period. It will certainly feature in the election campaign of Netanyahu’s rivals.
Netanyahu's opponents likely consider this testimony straight from Netanyahu’s house symbolic of the prime minister’s total detachment from reality. The remarks intended to delegitimize the young demonstrators and their motivations paint an almost picturesque image of the prime minister sitting with his son and watching the demonstrators with amusement, and could prove lethal to his public image.
Retired Brig. Gen. Amos Haskel, a leader of the demonstrators outside the prime minister’s residence, tweeted, “Yair, I suggest that you and your father pay a visit to Independence Park, 500 meters from your home on Balfour Street, to see young people with nothing left in the refrigerator. If you have any bit of a heart left, you won’t laugh. You’ll cry. Yair, the public has already awakened. Our space ship has already taken off.”
Haskel wasn’t alone. Since yesterday, the internet has been flooded with responses like his, including a call for protesters to come to the next demonstration dressed as aliens.
But Netanyahu may not be worried at all. He may be relishing the opportunity in the attention. When the mass demonstrations started over the economic situation, he responded with an emergency economic plan that immediately sent money to the bank accounts of the self-employed, restoring a modicum of calm. That action likely reduced the participants in the demonstrations outside his home, on bridges across the country and even in major cities around the world over the last two weeks to smaller groups from further left.
Netanyahu is relying on painting the demonstrators as members of the far left, even as anarchists somehow motivated by big money from elitist millionaires, determined to bring down a right-wing leader. He knows that by doing so he will be able to rally his camp around him after his slide in the polls.
No one in Israel understands an underdog worldview better than Netanyahu. He knows exactly how to evoke a response from people who have felt excluded, victims of discrimination by the leftist elite. He knows how to stir them to action. He was in a similar situation after the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin in November 1995. He had been accused of incitement that pushed in turn a religious right-winger named Yigal Amir to assassinate the leftist prime minister who negotiated a peace plan. Netanyahu, who headed the opposition at the time, crashed in the polls, but managed to turn it around. He rallied his alliance of the disadvantaged: the ultra-Orthodox, Russian immigrants and Mizrahi Jews. Netanyahu took advantage of the calls from the left, collectively accusing the religious and the right of responsibility for the assassination, and was elected prime minister at the young age of 47.
Netanyahu is doing it again. Everything seems to indicate that he wants an early election, so he is rousing his camp. If the demonstrations are lemons, he is making lemonade.
That is why his son did not apologize, despite the shock, criticism and media outrage. Quite the contrary, he continued the line of attack from his popular Twitter account, posting more photos and videos from the demonstrations, zeroing in on demonstrators dressed up like Spiderman, dancing in fountains and carrying signs mocking him, slandering his mother and calling for the murder of his entire family.
Yair, now 29, is often seen as his father’s alter ego. Netanyahu once deftly disassociated himself from his son’s tweets. This time, he has been ignoring them, probably because his son’s remarks fit the political and media approach he has taken over the last two weeks, by portraying the demonstrators as leftist agitators and anarchists from wealthy families. Yair claims that they are both spreading the coronavirus and exploiting the pandemic, while trying to create the impression that the mass demonstrations transcend political differences.
The prime minister is saying the exact same things. For instance, in Sunday’s virtual cabinet meeting, he offered a stinging rebuke to Defense Minister Benny Gantz, who said that demonstrations are the lifeblood of democracy. Netanyahu said, “In the name of democracy, I see an attempt to trample on democracy at these demonstrations. It is a distortion of all the rules. It increases the spread of the coronavirus. And no one tried to stop it. On the contrary, they are fueling the demonstrations by enlisting the media in ways that have never been seen before.”
A line of Likud ministers are relaying the same message in interviews: “This is a campaign of incitement against the prime minister and the right. It is a campaign of incitement by the left, fueled by the New Israel Fund and the media,” said Minister of Transportation Miri Regev in a television interview on Aug. 1.
The government’s ministerial liaison to the Knesset, David Amsalem, steps up to the podium every week to do the same. In a July 22 speech, Amsalem accused leftist groups of funding the demonstrations. “There are people there who produce these events. I assume that they leave their Mercedes at Shaar HaGai [the highway to Jerusalem]. I want to tell you that you are causing anarchy in the State of Israel.”
Minister of Internal Security Amir Ohana frequently warns against “incitement to assassinate the prime minister” in interviews and calls the demonstrations “petri dishes for the coronavirus.’’ Coalition chairman Miki Zohar also calls the demonstrations a health risk. It is no coincidence that they are the most prominent Likud voices. Regev, Ohana and Zohar are all Mizrahi Jews and second-generation immigrants from the Arab world, an essential part of Netanyahu’s base.