Two Netanyahus: Lights, camera, Bibi

It’s as if there are two Netanyahus: the successful globe-trotter and the much-maligned, persistently investigated prime minister.

December 23, 2017 09:52
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends the weekly cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister's

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends the weekly cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister's office in Jerusalem.. (photo credit: REUTERS)

The halls of the Knesset were eerily quiet Thursday at the time that US Vice President Mike Pence was due to deliver what was expected to be the most pro-Israel address by a visiting dignitary since then-Canadian prime minister Stephen Harper three years ago.

Regardless of media speculation, the postponement of Pence’s trip occurred despite – not because of – US President Donald Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and the violence in its aftermath. The official reasoning for the delay – trouble passing bills in Congress – was absolutely genuine.

Who could understand that better than Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu? He will have his own parliamentary battles in the weeks ahead, which he will have to fight without his top general, after coalition chairman David Bitan was felled by a criminal investigation and quit his post Wednesday.

Netanyahu repeatedly praised Bitan in his controversial address Tuesday night at the Hanukka party he hosted at Ramat Gan’s Kfar Hamaccabiah Hotel, knowing that he would be saying good-bye to his ultimate political ally the following morning.

Had Pence arrived, the focus of the media’s attention would have been on the undoubtedly positive visit, which would have been painted as yet another success in international relations for the prime minister and foreign minister. Instead, corruption bringing down yet another Netanyahu ally was at the forefront.

In recent months, there has been a constant battle for the attention of both the media and the prime minister between his diplomatic achievements, which make him look so good to Israelis, and the probes, which make him look so bad. It’s as if there are two Netanyahus: the successful globe-trotter, whose next steps will be in India and at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, and the much-maligned, persistently investigated prime minister with his back against the wall.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks at the Jerusalem Post Diplomatic Conference (Marc Israel Sellem)

When the focus of the media and the public is on the investigations, Netanyahu goes down in the polls. When the diplomatic success gets the upper hand, presumably the prime minister’s popularity rises, but no one knows that for sure, because the media does not take polls when Netanyahu is at his peak, and if the Likud took its own poll, no one is revealing the results.

No poll of Knesset mandates has been broadcast or printed since December 4, two days before Trump’s historic speech about Jerusalem. The Likud did not do too well in that poll, receiving only two mandates more than Yesh Atid, 24 to 22. The Jerusalem Post ran a poll two days beforehand, which predicted that Likud and Yesh Atid would tie at 25 seats.

SO WAS there a so-called “Trump bump”? It’s too late to find out, but it apparently doesn’t really matter, because Netanyahu is not speaking to the public at large right now. If he were, he would do best by pretending in his public speeches that the criminal investigations weren’t happening, the same way that Ariel Sharon did when he was prime minister.

Not for the first time, Netanyahu is taking the opposite approach to that taken by the late Sharon. Netanyahu’s strategy can best be illustrated by one sentence that he said in his carefully choreographed speech at Kfar Hamaccabiah.

He called out from the stage to Shai Hayek, his political adviser, and asked him to lower the lights so he could better see the crowd (as though lighting were among Hayek’s responsibilities). It was a classic political gimmick for Netanyahu, who famously took off his bulletproof vest during a speech in Kiryat Shmona nearly two decades ago, after the crowd assured him they were all Likudniks.

Netanyahu asked to see that crowd, which braved traffic jams, obnoxious security and repulsive sufganiyot at Kfar Hamaccabiah. It was his target audience in the speech, and he intends to keep his eyes on it in the months ahead.

Those asking since Tuesday night why Netanyahu could be so foolish as to attack the very same police who are investigating him did not see the look of that audience as he did. They received him the way hassidic Jews see their rebbe: with complete adulation, as though he were totally blameless, perhaps even on another plane of humanity.

When Netanyahu pronounced that his investigations would not lead to anything, the entire audience lovingly chanted back the second half of what has become his mantra: “because there wasn’t anything!” The Likudniks at the event literally fought over T-shirts and cellphone accessories that said “We love Netanyahu.”

The posters printed for the event and hung around the hall bore provocative new slogans: “Loving Netanyahu, maintaining democracy” and “The nation elects, the Left tailors,” using a word for instigating police probes that rhymes with elects in Hebrew.

Another poster mocked Case 1000, in which the prime minister is being probed for receiving expensive gifts from international millionaires, calling it “Case 1000 Nights” – a reference to the classic book of Middle Eastern folktales and an implication that police are writing a fictional story about Netanyahu.

When people in that crowd hear Netanyahu say that the expected police recommendation to indict the prime minister for bribery will be discarded in the trash, and listen to him accuse the police, press, the Left, and the New Israel Fund of an “organized witch hunt” aimed at unseating him, they believe every word.

The police arrive at the Prime Minster's house to begin questioning Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (Marc Israel Sellem)

“In a matter of weeks, analysts will lead news shows with explosive headlines on recommendations that are grave, very grave, even among the gravest the state has known,” Netanyahu said while laughing mockingly. “So there will be recommendations. So what? Most recommendations of police lead to nothing. More than 60% of the time police recommendations are thrown in the garbage.

It happens to thousands of Israelis, including countless public figures, and meanwhile, it ruins lives, harms reputations. The recommendations will lead nowhere because nothing happened.”

Netanyahu was counting on what will be remembered as the “So what?” speech resonating not only with the Likudniks in the crowd but with those who vote for the party watching the address on television.

That was why every facial gesture Netanyahu made appeared timed and rehearsed, including when he touched his eyebrows, in a reference to bushy-eyebrowed Channel 2 police reporter Moshe Nussbaum.

The other Likudniks Netanyahu was targeting were the ones who voted in the last election for Bayit Yehudi, Yisrael Beytenu, Shas and especially the Kulanu Party of Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon, his former No. 2 in Likud.

Kahlon, who was raised in Hadera’s Likud-dominated Givat Olga, admits he is still a Likudnik in his soul, as are the majority of his voters. Netanyahu is betting that even if the police recommendations are indeed very grave, Kahlon will not be able to ignore his Likudnik soul and voters, when he has to decide whether to bring down the government.

How could Kahlon topple Netanyahu when his own voters are reacting to the headlines by saying “So what?” Can Kahlon do to Netanyahu what Ehud Barak did to Ehud Olmert and force him out of office for a story out of One Thousand and One Nights?

This is the narrative Netanyahu would like to see when the police recommendations come out, so he carefully scripted it well in advance. In his first term as prime minister, it bothered Netanyahu that there were no pro-Netanyahu media outlets. He decided that he had to change that before he came back. Israel Hayom, attempts to take over public broadcasting, and the newspaper collusion affair known as Case 2000 are the result of that.

Nevertheless, despite all that, Netanyahu still lacks control over the media in a country with freedom of the press. The “So what?” mantra joining the “There won’t be anything, because there wasn’t anything” mantra is his way of gaining control over the minds of the people who he believes truly matter.

WILL IT work? That remains to be seen. The police are expected to submit their recommendations to Attorney-General Avichai Mandelblit next month – and simultaneously leak them to the press, of course.

But in that month, Netanyahu will be in Davos and India, and Pence is now set to come in between to deliver that speech to the Knesset in which he will extol the virtues of Israel and its exalted leader.

That speech, unlike the one in Kfar Hamaccabiah, is intended for the Israeli public at large. If it is as positive as expected, it could take the headlines away from the investigations and remind Israelis that their leader is indispensable.

If that happens and it all goes Netanyahu’s way, people could end up asking in retrospect whether the Pence visit was postponed not because of the violence being targeted by the Israel Police, but as a favor to the prime minister, who is being targeted by the Israel Police.

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