Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech to the party faithful at the Tel Aviv Exhibition Grounds on August 9 set the tone for the next election campaign – whenever it may come – and the message was clear: “The people are with me and I won’t go without a fight, despite the conspiracy by the Left and the media to topple me.”
The event, orchestrated by Coalition Chair Likud Knesset Member David Bitan, was an unequivocal success. Likud loyalists, numbering roughly 3,000, from all over the country packed the venue to the rafters, and cheered on their leader. The gathering proved again that Netanyahu, and his wife, Sara, do enjoy the genuine affection of large parts of Israeli society despite the almost daily media barrage of corruption and questionable behavior by the “royal couple,” as they are dubbed by some hostile commentators.
The rally was organized at the last minute by Bitan after a particularly bad week for the prime minister.
Netanyahu’s former chief of staff Ari Harow reached an agreement with the prosecution to turn state’s witness in two corruption cases against his former boss. It happened a day after police explicitly said for the first time that the investigations into the prime minister’s dealings involve bribery, fraud and breach of trust.
Under the deal, Harow will be convicted of fraud and breach of trust in a separate case, but will avoid a prison term. Police investigators hope the development will mark a turning point in the ongoing graft investigations, although the final decision on a possible indictment against Netanyahu is unlikely until next year.
Israel television’s Channel 2 also reported that Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit is likely to charge Sara Netanyahu over alleged improprieties at the Prime Minister’s Residence.
After the popular morning radio news programs told listeners they had difficulty arranging interviews with Likud ministers and MKs who were willing to defend Netanyahu, Bitan decided enough was enough. It was time for the much-maligned prime minister to rally the faithful and reset the agenda.
Netanyahu rose to the occasion, playing the crowd and using his renowned rhetorical skills to denounce what he termed nothing less than a left-wing conspiracy, assisted by the media, to oust the Likud from power.
“Both the Left and the media – and we know it’s the same thing – are now enlisting in an unprecedented, obsessive witch hunt against me and my family with the goal of staging a government overthrow! Their goal is to apply improper and incessant pressure on the enforcement agencies so that they indict at any cost, regardless of the truth, without any connection to justice.
“The media and the Left that serves it… invent countless affairs, countless articles, countless headlines, so that maybe something will stick,” he said. “If not submarines then cigars, if not cigars then conversations with a publisher, if not Case 1,000 then Case 2,000, if not Case 2,000 then Case 3,000, 4,000, 5,000. They’re demanding that the enforcement agencies give us something, it doesn’t matter what.”
Netanyahu further lambasted the media for targeting his family, especially Sara.
“They won’t tell the public how she supports sick families, Holocaust survivors, children with cancer and lone soldiers. No, they would rather focus on the important things: the procedure for changing a light bulb [at the Prime Minister’s Residence], a cup of tea given to her dying 97-year-old father – what a disgrace!”
Netanyahu also claimed that the effort to oust him was designed to achieve an Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank, but vowed this would not happen. He and his supporters would “proudly carry the flag of Israel… for many more years,” he promised, asserting that the Likud would grow from 30 to 40 seats in the next elections “with God’s help.”
This is not the first time that the prime minister has made divisive comments that pits “them” (the Left/the Arabs/the media) against “us” (the Likud backed by the people), prompting comparisons with US President Donald Trump or even Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.
Netanyahu was careful not to attack police investigators or judicial officials in name but the speech sent a warning to the prosecutors that if they move to indict they will be defying the will of the people.
The Israel Press Council issued a sharp statement following Netanyahu’s speech.
“The repeated marking of the media as an enemy plotting a ‘coup’ poses a danger to the democratic nature of Israeli society,” the Council warned, adding that this could lead to real harm to the press and to journalists.
Commentators mocked the prime minister’s assertion that law enforcement and judicial officials were in any way linked to a left-wing conspiracy to topple the government, noting that the police chief, the Attorney General and the State Comptroller were all Netanyahu appointments. They also noted that the Left barely exists as a credible political force in Israel anymore, with the main opposition parties – Yesh Atid and the Zionist Union – being more accurately defined as centrist.
Yesh Atid Chairman Yair Lapid accused Netanyahu of crossing all red lines.
“The prime minister organized himself a protest against the investigations and gave a speech that was the most dividing and incitement- filled that I have ever heard from a public figure in Israel.”
Former prime minister Ehud Barak, whom Netanyahu attacked in his speech, referring to Barak as “an old man with a new beard,” dismissed his comments as a manifestation of panic.
“The suspect from Balfour Street continues to whine. The Likudniks are proud and honest citizens. Not puppets. There is no persecution; there is corruption. There is no leadership; there is panic.”
Zionist Union leader Avi Gabbay also attacked the speech and called for early elections.
“The people of Israel saw a prime minister who lacks confidence. The prime minister will incite, divide, and try to divert attention from the disabled and the real problems. Netanyahu always claims that the people are with him. I call on him to examine that claim by holding national elections as soon as possible.”
Despite the opposition’s criticisms, the event did succeed in galvanizing Netanyahu’s support within the Likud. All the ministers who were not abroad, together with almost all the Likud MKs, attended the rally, including Transport Minister Israel Katz who had been criticized by Netanyahu a few days earlier for attempting to undermine his leadership.
A dissenting group within the party called the New Likudniks boycotted the rally. The group, which claims 12,000 registered party members, wants to replace Netanyahu, change the Likud from within and influence the makeup of the Knesset list.
Likud Knesset Member Nava Boker called the new Likudniks a malicious leftwing plot.
“They want to influence from inside and bring down the right-wing government. They belong to Meretz and to the Labor Party. They have to be kicked out of the Likud.”
Likud figures expressed confidence that Netanyahu’s show of force created an effect that will reverberate for a long time to come.
But polls taken after the rally showed that just 11% of respondents said that Netanyahu’s speech strengthened their confidence in him, and 27% said that it weakened their confidence.
According to a Channel 2 poll, 72% of the public support investigating a sitting prime minister, versus 15% who believe that the investigations should be postponed. A poll commissioned by the Kan public broadcasting corporation found that two thirds of the public did not believe that Netanyahu was innocent and believe he should resign if indicted. The poll also found that 53% of the public did not agree with the prime minister’s claim that the Left and the media were attempting a coup, while 47% agreed with Netanyahu.
It would appear that the prime minister succeeded in energizing the faithful, but the public remains divided over whether to believe the claim advanced by Netanyahu and his supporters that a left-wing/media conspiracy is attempting to topple the government.