Driving along Tel Aviv’s main highway, it’s hard to tell elections are underway. There are no billboards in sight, no candidates’ faces spanning overhead bridges on banners sporting catchy slogans. This being one of the longest elections in Israel’s history, party campaigners and strategists are taking their sweet time, saving their budgets and energy for closer to election day on November 1.
And yet, on social media, one campaign genre is already trending: viral compilations of scandalous sound bites from various Likud contenders vying for a slot in the next Knesset.
Sound bites and controversies
Ahead of the party’s primary race, scheduled for the second week of August, dozens of candidates – incumbents and wannabes – have been rallying across the country to spark enthusiasm and gain support, meanwhile producing juicy controversies, almost on a daily basis. The gold Benjamin Netanyahu “medal of loyalty” produced by one of the former prime minister’s fans caused a huge debacle last week.
This was quickly supplanted by a video showing former MK Ayoub Kara pledging to “run over the Left” when the Likud returns to power. Then came Likud stalwart Miri Regev, who said in an interview with Walla this week that if it was up to her, Netanyahu’s criminal trial would be suspended during the campaign. Within minutes, Netanyahu’s rivals remixed her statement into another viral video warning against the breakdown of the rule of law if he – or she – returns.
Regev, who is hoping to defend her title as the highest-ranking woman in the Likud, was also filmed embracing notorious pro-Netanyahu activist Rami Ben-Yehuda, known for dealing with political rivals by using intimidating messages, violence and vulgar harassment. Ben-Yehuda is not running for a place on the list, but is traveling around Israel with his own roadshow, endorsing candidates and participating in gatherings and events.
Ben-Yehuda was also the host of a Twitter “Space” discussion this week, in which another right-wing supporter called to “execute” the state prosecution that put Netanyahu on trial for treason. Netanyahu disavowed the activist and condemned the remarks, but by then they had already sparked an uproar – and fueled another wave of negative campaign videos against the Likud.
As one of the only three parties in the Knesset that holds internal elections, Likud fans rightly like to boast about their “democratic celebration.” But the recurring and embarrassing fouls are turning their primaries into a celebration for their rivals, as well. The first to identify the soft spot was Netanyahu himself, who fought to hold the primaries as early as possible.
According to well-informed Likud sources, Netanyahu resisted pressure from senior party personnel who were pushing to delay the internal elections for logistical reasons, and insisted on having a quick and short campaign.
“During the primary race, candidates do and say whatever they want. Netanyahu wanted to get it over with in order to impose campaign restrictions and discipline.”Likud source
“During the primary race, candidates do and say whatever they want,” one Likud source explained. “Netanyahu wanted to get it over with in order to impose campaign restrictions and discipline.” After the primary party is over, it will be easier for him to manage the Likud campaign and turn it back into a one-man show.
Netanyahu has been trying to keep his distance from the primary scandals, as they endanger one of his main campaign goals – securing two or three additional Knesset seats from so-called “soft” right-wing swing voters, who could help him reach his ultimate goal: a solid election victory with an absolute majority of 61 pro-Bibi seats. The Likud campaign will try to focus on disappointed Naftali Bennett and Gideon Sa’ar voters who might be looking for a way back home but could very well be repelled by the increasingly ominous discourse in the Likud or by manifestations of a Netanyahu personality cult, like the gold loyalty necklace.
BUT WHILE Netanyahu was quick to denounce the medal and the calls for executing public officials, he has been much more reticent about Ben-Yehuda and similar thugs, who also happen to be his biggest supporters and defenders. He also turns a deaf ear and rarely rebukes his loyalist’s destructive attacks on the police and senior justice officials, given that in many cases, they are using his own words.
“He is playing a double tune, like a radio station that plays two different music styles on different frequencies,” one of his confidants observed. “He wants the Bibistim choir preaching for the base, while he presents a more conservative image and tries to appeal to more moderate audiences”
Behind the scenes, Netanyahu is personally involved in designing the future Likud list, and trying to keep some of the embarrassing episodes away. His main concern with the potential newcomers has to do with loyalty, fearing future rebellions or splits if he fails to win the election again. He is also concerned with their public profile. Ironically – but probably not surprising given his own personal agenda in recent years – many of the new faces running in the Likud are either lawyers, or hold a current or past criminal record. Despite his own legal title, Netanyahu is not very enthusiastic about the latter. According to Likud sources, he is pushing other candidates to run against those new faces for specific slots on the ballot.
In the Tel Aviv district, for instance, a surprise last-minute contender joined the race this week: Jonathan Urich, Netanyahu’s senior media adviser for the past seven years. He will be running against David Laniado, a veteran Likud activist who was convicted and served time in prison a decade ago for breaking into houses. He is also considered close to David Bitan, a senior party member with growing power, which Netanyahu seeks to abort. Urich’s candidacy is said to be aimed at one goal: convincing Laniado to drop out of the race.
Urich is not the only Netanyahu confidant to jump into this primary’s water: Boaz Bismuth, former editor of Israel Hayom and one of the Likud’s prime-time TV supporters, announced his political debut this week, and will be running for a place on the national list. Two other former Netanyahu advisers have entered the race: Avi Simhon, who was his senior economic policy guy as PM, and Erez Tadmor, one of his prominent campaigners in recent years. Another ex-adviser, former chief of staff David Sharan, is also running, but Netanyahu has yet to endorse him and is said to support a rival candidate for the slot. Sharan is also one of the defendants in the Submarine affair.
Netanyahu is one of the strongest leaders the Likud has ever known. Earlier this month he was re-crowned as party leader, dispensing with the need to actually vote for him. Even after losing power and wallowing for a year in the opposition, not one single Likudnik had the guts or the resilience to wage an unwinnable battle against him. Even former Knesset speaker Yuli Edelstein, who announced a challenge against Netanyahu for the leadership last year, quietly retracted when elections were called.
However, he cannot control the approximately 120,000 Likud members who will cast their ballot on August 10, and he has limited influence on the political wheeling and dealing that play a critical role in forging the list. Thus, despite his efforts to soften and clean up the list, he may wind up with a list in which the outspoken firebrands set the tone and influence the rest of the campaign.
Some critics would regard such an outcome as poetic justice; it is Netanyahu, after all, who has been fostering and promoting his most zealous advocates in order to spread the word against the justice system that is supposedly hounding him. The genie that he let out of the bottle may come back to haunt him on Election Day. •