Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu climbs out after a visit inside the Rahav, the fifth submarine in the fleet, after it arrived in Haifa's port.
(photo credit: BAZ RATNER/REUTERS)
There is a rather strange photograph of Benjamin Netanyahu’s visit to the navy base in Haifa last week, taken by a press photographer from Yediot Aharonot. It shows the prime minister from the back sitting on a white plastic chair, observing a line of shaded young soldiers facing the photographer and a group of standing officers in fatigues. Two of Netanyahu’s security men are also in the photo – in full light, flanking him on either side, with their backs to the photographer but closer to him than is Netanyahu. Two uniformed men – one a naval officer – are facing the camera with an inquisitive look on their faces.
The effect is rather bizarre. Netanyahu looks a bit like a dwarf in the middle of the picture, highlighted by the white chair on which he is seated, and his white hair. His face is not visible.
This was certainly not the sort of photograph that the attorney-general was referring to when, before the visit to the navy base, he reminded Netanyahu (or rather warned him) that during the election campaign he must not publish photographs of himself with soldiers. As mentioned above, the photograph was taken by a press photographer and not by one on behalf of the prime minister; rather than glorifying Netanyahu, it ridicules him.
Before the visit to Haifa, Netanyahu complained that “they” had issued a “strange” instruction that he may not be photographed with soldiers. “I am also a soldier,” he continued in a mocking tone. “Is it therefore forbidden to take photographs of me?”
Well, not exactly. “They” are actually the law. Article 2b(b) of the Elections Law (Ways of Propaganda) 5719-1959 states that “Election propaganda should not use the Israel Defense Forces in a manner that might create the impression that the Israel Defense Forces are identified with a party or a list of candidates.”
The problem with the prime minister being photographed with a group of uniformed soldiers, and publishing the photograph within the framework of his election campaign, is not only because the IDF must remain politically neutral, but because some of the soldiers being photographed might support parties other than the Likud – and so are being turned into unwilling extras in the propaganda of a party that they do not support.
The insinuation that the “strange instruction” is part of Netanyahu’s persecution by the law enforcement authorities is also misleading, since this article of law has been applied to various parties in many election campaigns in the past. What one wonders is whether Netanyahu is really ignorant of the law, or whether he simply chooses to ignore it.
IN GENERAL, acquaintance with the law in Israel and the rules of ethics for members of the Knesset (in the absence of rules of ethics for members of the government, it is the former rules that apply to MKs) does not seem to be one of Netanyahu’s fortes. Less than a month ago, he wrote in his Facebook account: “Bribery is money, it is envelopes, it is cash. Bribery is not two-and-a-half reports in Walla.” Well, according to article 293(1) of Israel’s Penal Law, bribery to a public servant can take the form of “money, a monetary equivalent, a service or some other benefit.” So even “two-and-a-half [positive] reports in Walla” is a benefit.
But to return to what can be included in election propaganda, there is nothing to prevent Netanyahu – or anyone else taking part in the elections – from advertising their achievements in the course of their election campaigns, or even performing certain acts that they might not have performed if it weren’t for the election.
For example, it was obvious that the timing of Netanyahu’s visit to the US Congress in March 2015 to speak against the signing of a nuclear deal with Iran, which was being promoted by president Barack Obama at the time, was determined by the approaching elections in Israel, and not only the approaching signing of the deal. Was it a wise move? Opinions are divided. Was it legally permissible? Yes.
In the same way, Netanyahu’s current bragging about Israeli attacks on Iranian installations and arms dumps in Syria (an issue that has traditionally been kept under wraps); his much publicized meetings with certain Muslim and Arab leaders in the Middle East and Africa; and his hosting in Jerusalem of the Visegrad Group (made up of Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic and Slovakia) are all designed to serve his election campaign. As in the case of the controversial speech in Congress four years ago, they can and should be criticized on their merits – that is, whether they really serve Israel’s long-term interests – rather than on their timing.
I BELIEVE that the correct response by Netanyahu’s political opponents to his bragging about his foreign policy activism (which is legitimate in itself) is to point out that while some of his moves are certainly welcome, the real breakthrough in Israel’s foreign relations came in the aftermath of the Madrid Peace Conference held in October-November 1991 – in which prime minister Yitzhak Shamir participated against his will (and the young Netanyahu acted as Israel’s official spokesman) – and the Oslo Accords signed by Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat in August 1993.
These two events, which led to an attempt to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict on the basis of the land-for-peace principle, led to the disappearance of most of the manifestations of the primary, secondary and tertiary Arab boycotts of Israel (that had cost the Israeli economy billions of dollars since 1948); the establishment of diplomatic relations with China and India – countries which had never before formalized their relations with Israel – and Israel’s reestablishment of relations with many states that had broken them off during and in the aftermath of the Six Day War.
It is time that the opposition to Netanyahu addresses his attempt to convince the Israeli public that before he became prime minister, Israel was a third world country in which the main means of transportation were camels and “a Turkish train from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem,” and whose foreign policy was in a state of stalemate. He himself can continue to say whatever he wants (within the limits of the law), but we should not be surprised if what he says is shown to be figments of his imagination or a twisted vision of reality.
At the moment, the impression one gets is that it is not the propaganda campaigns of the various lists participating in the elections that will determine their results, but the ability of Netanyahu to get some of the splinter right-wing religious parties to unite, and thus prevent the loss of right-wing votes should several of these parties fail to pass the 3.25% qualifying threshold (as happened in the 1992 elections, which resulted in Rabin’s victory).
We shall be all the wiser on this issue next Thursday evening, by which time all of the parties participating in the elections to the 21st Knesset must register with the Central Elections Committee and present their final lists of candidates.
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