With polls plunging, Netanyahu rebrands himself as responsible adult

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu realized that if he wants to preserve his popularity and save the Likud party from plunging in the polls, he must focus on one thing only: defeating the coronavirus pandemic.

al-monitor Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu waves as he arrives outside the West Wing of the White House to participate in the signing ceremony of the Abraham Accords, Washington, Sept. 15, 2020. Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images.

Nov 2, 2020

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu landed Oct. 28 by helicopter in Israel’s northern border area in order to observe the last stage of the massive Lethal Arrow military exercise that simulated multifront warfare.

The prime minister, dressed in a black polo shirt that matched his black mask, chatted with the soldiers and was photographed with them. Then he turned to send a well-photographed warning message to Hezbollah: “Even during the coronavirus [outbreak], our enemies are not stagnant and neither are we. In this exercise I have been impressed by the vast improvement in the IDF’s [Israel Defense Forces] offensive capabilities,” Netanyahu said. “Hezbollah and the state of Lebanon should take this into account. Whoever attacks us will encounter firepower and a steel fist that will destroy any enemy.”

The pictures and videos of the visit were disseminated by the prime minister’s office on every possible media platform. However, it is doubtful whether Israel’s citizens really appreciated the show of power, as they cope with the ramifications of the ongoing coronavirus crisis.

But Netanyahu’s trip to the northern front allowed him to distance himself a bit from the virus imbroglio. It was a way to remind the public that Israel’s numerous security threats do not disappear even during a pandemic, and that he, as "Mr. Security,” is the best person for the job.

Netanyahu’s visit was publicized as being part of several strategic changes in recent weeks. These changes are designed to halt the prime minister’s worrisome dive in the polls, in light of what is perceived as his failure to manage the coronavirus outbreak that led to the second lockdown. He is viewed as having surrendered to his ultra-Orthodox political allies, and is enslaving the entire public to his political needs. This reached its peak during the holiday season when ultra-Orthodox population concentrations refused to obey government directives and continued their daily routines, while most of the general population was under lockdown in their homes.

In recent weeks, dramatic surveys have been publicized showing how Netanyahu is losing his edge, and that Yamina Chairman Naftali Bennett is benefiting from the change. Bennet is viewed as an impartial politician who wants to deal with the coronavirus in ways that can assist the public. One of the most anti-Netanyahu polls, disseminated on Channel 12 Oct. 6, stated that Netanyahu and Bennett were almost head-to-head. According to the poll, the Likud headed by Netanyahu had dived down to only 26 mandates (as it did almost two years ago), while Yamina under Bennett has strengthened to 23 mandates, almost equal to Netanyahu. On this backdrop, political scenarios began to emerge that pointed to Bennett as the next prime minister.

Netanyahu internalized the situation and changed his strategy. He disconnected himself from petty political arenas, such as planned clashes with the Blue and White party. Instead, he tried to show the public that he works for the public good day and night in order to deal with the current health and economic crisis. This was not an easy task, faced as he was by a furious public that felt it had been abandoned. But Netanyahu knew that this was his only way to stem the erosion and avoid irreparable damage. In other words, Netanyahu realized that he had to remarket himself as “the New Netanyahu.” Perhaps this is a ridiculous pretension for a wily, 71-year-old politician whose cold cynicism has been proven again and again. But it turns out that even this time, the old trick still works: The “New Netanyahu who cares for all his subjects” campaign is already bearing fruit.

The first positive sign was registered Nov. 1 in a poll taken by Channel 13, in which Netanyahu rises from the dead in an encouraging rebound: The Likud toys with 30 mandates and received 29. No less important: Bennett’s takeoff has been curbed and remains at 22 mandates. This is still high, but it comes with a glass ceiling. True, the results remain problematic and Netanyahu is far from the 41 mandates he received in the polls after the first closure. Nevertheless, it shows that the Israeli public still views him as a leading candidate for the premiership.

How did he do it — again?

The answer is that he closely focused on the goal, once he understood that the public was beginning to get sick and tired of him and the Likud representatives who were viewed as arrogant and disconnected when the coronavirus was spreading fast.

For example, Minister of Environmental Protection Gila Gamliel got infected with COVID-19 after praying in a synagogue on Yom Kippur, despite the warnings against doing so. This aroused a tremendous wave of criticism even among hard-core Likud supporters. Other higher-ups, such as coalition chairman Miki Zohar, charged against the legal system (almost as if they were criminals), blaming it for building a case against Netanyahu. Thus, the Israeli public under a second closure felt that the Likud was too busy with itself and with Netanyahu’s personal interests to worry about its constituency.

With all that happening, Netanyahu realized that things must change. He internalized the fact that in the COVID-19 reality, there was room for only state affairs. Netanyahu then began to talk a lot about his diplomatic achievements regarding peace agreements with the Gulf states. In parallel, he totally stopped addressing the left-wing demonstrations against him, which he had called “COVID-19 incubators” in the past, and ignored the anarchist demonstrations as well. Also, he avoided attacking Blue and White and its leaders in a way that could be construed as trying to dismantle the government. But above all, Netanyahu had to show that he was not surrendering to the ultra-Orthodox bloc in a way that could drag the entire state into the depths.

That was the reason why Netanyahu adopted a tougher approach, enlarging the fines against those in violation of the COVID-19 guidelines. The ultra-Orthodox viewed this step as directed mainly at them, because they routinely flouted social distancing guidelines in their education institutions and at crowded weddings. Still, despite their pressure tactics, Netanyahu backed the tougher guidelines at the Cabinet meeting Nov. 1.

And there was one more thing: When Netanyahu led the way to a second closure, people argued that this meant failure since Israel was the only developed country to do so. But Netanyahu argued that Europe would also be forced to announce a second closure and he was proven right: France, England, Germany and other countries in Europe have announced their second lockdown. Meanwhile, Israel is emerging from its lockdown after morbidity went down dramatically. This, too, helps Netanyahu.

“When you’re in an electoral spin, put political considerations aside and just do the right thing” — this is one of the mantras that Netanyahu would recite to his advisers and assistants. And that’s exactly what he has been doing in recent months, at least outwardly, for the sake of appearance. Meanwhile, this strategy again proves itself.

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