Netanyahu aims to unify Israeli citizens in new campaign video - analysis

Israel is now facing its fourth election in two years.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Health Minister Yuli Edelstein seen during the vaccination of the two million recipients, in Ramla, January 14, 2021. (photo credit: TOMER NEUBERG/FLASH90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Health Minister Yuli Edelstein seen during the vaccination of the two million recipients, in Ramla, January 14, 2021.
(photo credit: TOMER NEUBERG/FLASH90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu placed a 73-second campaign video on his Facebook page last week that seemed, well, not very Netanyahu-like.
“We drained the swamps together, as one people,” Netanyahu declared, as footage of the early pioneers flashed in the background.” We got excited together on the 29th of November [the UN partition vote in 1947], as one people. As one people we fought for the country, as one people we celebrate, as one person we hurt.
“We absorbed together immigrants from all corners of the earth, and as one people we established one of the most magnificent high-tech and science industries in the world. We brought together all sectors – Jews and Arabs, secular and ultra-Orthodox, Muslims and Christians, Druze and Bedouin – all into one state.”
As one people, he continued, the country was excited by the peace with Egypt and Jordan, and “now with the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Morocco and Sudan.” And, as one people, Israel is fighting the coronavirus, vaccinating against it and is “the first in the world to defeat it.”
The clip finishes with Netanyahu saying, “our strength is in our unity, and only together will we continue to win.”
So Why is this clip unlike Netanyahu? Because this is the same Netanyahu whose 2015 election message slogan was “It is them, or us,” and whose April 2019 elections slogan was ``Either Bibi, or Tibi,” a reference to Joint List MK Ahmad Tibi.
Neither of those were exactly unifying messages. Nor was his statement to his supporters as the elections were coming to a close in 2015 that they better get out to vote because the Arabs were coming out to the polls “in droves.”
NETANYAHU’S CAMPAIGNS, like most campaigns in Israel, will not go down as uplifting examples of playing to the nation’s better angels. Rather they were divisive “them or us” campaigns that played on Israeli fears of terror, Iran and – during his first campaign in 1996 – the division of Jerusalem.
In that election, Netanyahu’s campaign had a two-pronged campaign: Netanyahu will bring a “secure peace,” and his opponent Shimon Peres “will divide Jerusalem.”
That was the first campaign that Netanyahu enlisted the mythic US campaign strategist Arthur Finklelstein, who understood what resonated with the Israeli public – and put it in a short, pithy slogan, accompanied by the sound of breaking glass, warning that Peres will divide the capital. This message was then repeated over, and over, and over again.
It worked, and Netanyahu – together with the help of a Chabad campaign that Netanyahu is “good for the Jews,” also not a message extolling Israeli togetherness – came back from a strong deficit to narrowly beat Peres in a campaign where Peres was backed strongly by then US president Bill Clinton, the media, and that nation’s cultural elite.
What made that victory even more remarkable is that Netanyahu was tarred with accusations that he was partially responsible for the incitement that led to Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination just half a year earlier.
Yet he won. Finkelstein has since passed away, but his signature repetition of one catchy phrase that sums up a sentiment that resonates with the country lives on in Israeli campaigns. Which makes Netanayhu’s “as one people” video so interesting.
At a time when a deep sense of malaise seems to be spreading across the country, as divisions have emerged as they have not emerged for years – witness the coronavirus-generated schism between the ultra-Orthodox and the rest of the country – Netanyahu has opted to go with a message of togetherness.
While Netanyahu sounding this note might seem counterintuitive, it indicates that his political strategists believe that this is what the people want to hear – not that everything is going to the dogs; not that nothing is working; not that the social fabric in the country is falling apart – but rather that together “we can win.” It’s Netanyahu’s take on Barack Obama’s 2008 slogan, “Yes we can.”
Netanyahu, who has now governed far longer as prime minister than any other in the country – at nearly 15 years having outlasted David Ben-Gurion by more than a year and half – knows what political messages work. This, after all, is one of the reasons for his political longevity.
For many, Netanyahu’s employing a “togetherness” message seems counterintuitive, and surely won’t work. As his rival Gideon Sa’ar of the New Hope Party said after that video came out, “Unity is indeed the order of the day, but he who has divided, cannot now unify.”
But maybe he can – or at the very least effectively run on that message.
It also seems counterintuitive for Netanyahu to be campaigning for votes in the Arabs sector. But he is doing exactly that – and the polls are showing that the Likud could pick up as many as two seats in the Arab sector, enough seats to make all the difference in trying to cobble together a coalition.
Netanyahu is a brilliant political tactician and campaigner, and these counterintuitive moves signal that he is reading the country in a different and more creative way than those running against him. He is demonstrating an agile ability to shift gears and go in directions that no one would have thought. Netanyahu going after the Arab vote? C’mon. Netanyahu running on a message of unity, not division? Who are you kidding?
Yet here we are. And those who hope to take him down would do well to pay attention and perhaps adjust their messaging as well. 
ISRAEL IS now facing its fourth election in two years, and the messages coming from the parties that want to unseat Netanyahu – from Meretz on the Left to New Hope on the Right – are essentially that Netanyahu is corrupt, that a prime minister on trial cannot effectively govern, that he is a danger to democracy, that all his actions are motivated by trying to evade trial, and that he puts his own interests above those of the nation.
The country has heard that message consistently for some five years, and even more loudly during the election campaigns. It resonates with a part of the country, but not with everyone. And in order to unseat Netanyahu, the opposing parties are at some time going to have to appeal to those who just don’t buy that line, because without shifting some of those voters, these parties will not have the votes to rule.
The polls are again predicting a veritable stalemate between the “pro-Bibi camp” and the “anti-Bibi camp,” factoring in that some of those in the anti-Bibi camp will be unable to sit together in a coalition because of ideological reasons – will Sa’ar’s party sit with an Arab party that does not recognize Israel as a Jewish state? – and also factoring in that Naftali Bennett’s Yamina Party could conceivably join a coalition with Netanyahu.
As a result, the country is staring down the barrel of another political logjam. And that means that the almost obsessive fixation of the opposition parties on Netanyahu the man is not delivering the goods. So instead of beating that horse trying to get some more mileage out of it, perhaps they should be looking for a different message, even – heaven forfend – a hopeful, positive one.
Bennett, to his credit, is doing so, making how to beat corona the centerpiece of his campaign. If Sa’ar, or Yesh Atid’s Yair Lapid, really hope to unseat Netanyahu, they are going to need to convince some in Netanyahu’s base to switch sides. Bashing the prime minister over and over again has not done the trick up until now, and it is doubtful if it will work this time either.
They need to readjust and recalibrate their message, something the man they hope to bring down has shown an uncanny ability to do – just look at his campaign extolling the virtues of unity and togetherness.
Who would have thought?