On Tuesday afternoon, a few hours before the opening of the Knesset’s winter session, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu posted a video to his Facebook and Twitter page: “I am putting the finishing touches on my speech,” he said. “I invite you to watch it at 4:30 p.m. and I promise, it will be interesting, very interesting.”
Rumors circulated throughout the media and political landscape – Was Netanyahu planning to dissolve the Knesset on its opening day? Was he going to make some special announcement about the Gaza Strip that, once again, seems on the verge of blowing up, or was he – like he did at the United Nations last month – going to disclose another covert Mossad operation?
Opening sessions of the Knesset are not usually headline makers. They are an opportunity for the coalition, and particularly the prime minister, to outline their legislative plan for the coming few months, and ideally give the public a sense of where the country might be headed.
Well, to put it mildly, that’s not what Israel received on Tuesday. The so-called “very interesting speech” that Netanyahu invited people to watch wasn’t unique because of its content – there was nothing there we hadn’t heard before. What made it unique was the insight it gave into the type of political campaign Netanyahu is going to run in the upcoming election – how it will be divisive, negative and the opposite of hope and optimism.
While he touted his economic success, claimed that Israel is a “cool country,” and promised that he and Russian President Vladimir Putin still work together on Syria, Netanyahu mostly used the Knesset podium to tout his achievements, to warn of Iran, to lambaste the Left, and to attack the press, including specific journalists. All together, it was a typical Netanyahu speech.
A day later, in Kiryat Shmona, he shouted down a heckler. “You are not interesting,” he told a social activist who interrupted his speech at the inauguration of a new medical center. “You are boring us.”
The truth is that this fits perfectly into the general election atmosphere in the country. A few weeks ago, for example, Likud put up campaign posters in Tel Aviv ahead of the October 30 mayoral elections with the slogan: “It’s us or them.”
One poster showed a split screen: half with a masked Islamist waving a Palestinian flag above the words “The Islamic Movement in Jaffa,” and the other half showing an Israeli flag under the words “The Hebrew city.” Along the bottom of the poster the words read “Only the Likud, the Right of Tel Aviv.”
Another campaign poster, with the same “It’s us or them” slogan, put an image of African migrants waving an Eritrean flag above the words “City of infiltrators,” with the same Israeli flag image and “Hebrew city” banner seen in the other poster. A Likud work of art.
And this week, in Ramle, posters went up showing a woman wearing a hijab with the slogan: “This could happen to your daughter,” warning of an alleged high intermarriage rate in the mixed Jewish-Arab city. The poster was sponsored by the city’s local Bayit Yehudi branch running in the local council elections.
Sadly, these are the Israeli election campaigns of 2018.
By the time elections are announced and held, Netanyahu will be wrapping up a decade as Israel’s prime minister. Those 18-year-olds now being drafted into the IDF have lived a life without knowing another leader of the State of Israel. They may have heard about Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert, but they don’t know them like they know Netanyahu, who has dominated their lives. They don’t know that there even exists a different type of politics or way of governing. What they know is what they have seen for the last 10 years. Some may like it. Others have simply grown accustomed to it.
Netanyahu’s attacks on the media are not new. It is something he has fostered since his first term in office ended in 1999, helping to retain an image of a embattled leader who is simply trying to fight against all odds to keep the country going. The Left is out to get him, and the media is out to stop him. But he, the narrative goes, triumphs against all.
The problem with this narrative is that today’s media landscape is nothing like it was in 1999. The most widely-read newspaper in the country is Israel Hayom, a free daily established by Sheldon Adelson in 2007 that rarely has a bad word to say about the prime minister. There are new radio stations and TV channels – like Galei Yisrael and Channel 20 – which shamelessly function as Likud mouthpieces.
It’s strange to hear someone who has served as prime minister for 10 years straight – 13 years in total – complain of a media vendetta, and how the Left stops him from implementing his desired policies. It would make sense to hear that from someone who was prime minister once or twice and maybe only for a few years. But 10 years straight?
The answer is that it’s all part of a show – a show dedicated to creating an image of Netanyahu and the Likud as underdogs even if they aren’t. It is an excuse used to divert attention away from questions of why certain policies are not being implemented.
Why does the Likud, which has been in power for 10 years, not annex the West Bank? Because of the US. Why doesn’t it make peace? Because of the Palestinians. Why doesn’t it pass a new IDF draft bill? Because of the haredim. Why doesn’t it institute more nationalist legislation? Because of the New Israel Fund. And why did Netanyahu’s Likud Party not get 40 seats in the last election (his goal for this upcoming election)? Because of the media.
For every question there’s an excuse, and for every excuse there’s a political motive. It’s easier to point a blaming finger at someone else than to take responsibility for your own actions. It’s far simpler to talk about who and what you oppose, than who and what you stand for. It is much easier to talk about what you won’t do than what actions you will take to improve citizens’ lives. Right-wing parties have no problem saying that they are opposed to a Palestinian state. But offer an alternative vision for what they want to happen in the West Bank and Gaza Strip? That no one will say.
Negativity does not have to be the tone of the elections that are soon to come. Israel has a lot to be proud of, and Netanyahu has a lot of genuine success he can take credit for without demonizing his political opponents. But for the campaigns of negativity to stop, Israelis will need to stand up and say enough. Let’s call on our political parties to make this election one of hope and optimism. That is the Israel story.