Man of the year: Bibi and Sara

Most Likud supporters believed that the end of the Netanyahu era was imminent. Only a few mourned.

Benjamin and Sara Netanyahu at Ben Gurion Airport (photo credit: PRIME MINISTER'S OFFICE)
Benjamin and Sara Netanyahu at Ben Gurion Airport
The Man of the Year for 5775 is Benjamin Netanyahu. And there’s also a starlet: standing beside him as Woman of the Year is Sara Netanyahu. She won’t be crowned separately for the simple reason that her personality and her husband’s have long been merged together.
Bibi and Sara are one unit, two people fused into a single entity, against the rest of the world. There is no Bibi without Sara and vice versa.
All the rumors and hypotheses based on “how does she manage to hold onto him?” and “what does she have on him?” are disconnected from reality. She has nothing on him and he has nothing on her. She has no hold on him and he has no hold on her.
They have been holding onto each other for dozens of years, depending on each other, relying only on each other. They have nothing but each other (and the two attendant lawyers, Shimron and Molcho), so that if there is a Man of the Year, it has to be Benjamin Netanyahu and that includes Sara.
It wasn’t easy for me to choose Netanyahu – on a personal level, too, after all my opinion on him is well known. On the other hand, the other contender was Eran Zahavi, so that no good would have emerged from this in any case. But seriously, Zahavi does possess capabilities and achievements previously unknown in Israeli football; he finished last year with a rare “treble” (three titles).
All of which also holds true for Netanyahu, who achieved his fourth term as prime minister. But Zahavi has much to learn. Only last year Netanyahu was at the twilight of his tenure, a yesterday man, his popularity plummeted, his political horizon blackened by apocalyptic clouds.
On the eve of the last elections, which he called, everyone (including himself) believed it was all over.
Bibi was trailing in the polls, Herzog/ Livni’s “Zionist Camp” maintained a solid advantage, a series of media-related, electoral and personal catastrophes clouded his chances of turning the tables, getting back in the picture.
Toward the end of the campaign almost all hope was lost. In the Likud people were organizing for the day after. MKs began meeting with potential heirs, a detailed program was drafted for the aftermath of defeat, and sharp knives were drawn and concealed in anticipation.
Most Likud supporters believed that the end of the Netanyahu era was imminent. Only a few mourned.
Netanyahu had become anathema virtually across the political spectrum.
Even in the Likud it was hard to find someone who wanted him to stay. He had surrounded himself with a wall of fire, vetoing every potential rival, preventing heirs, pushing out all rising stars: Moshe Kahlon, Gideon Sa’ar, Gilad Erdan (partial list). It was time to get rid of Bibi. Consensus.
The only ones to disagree with this were the Netanyahus. Both of them.
Husband and wife. During the campaign, when all the slogans failed to produce results in the polls, someone came up with a creative proposal: Bibi would announce that this was his last campaign. Despite his dubious reliability and weak record as a keeper of promises, some people thought this would make the difference.
It would be his last term.
In this way, the advisers hoped to dampen opposition at home, to dull the hatred of so many of for the veteran leader, in an attempt to garner empathy. Give Bibi one last chance.
Bibi gave the proposal serious consideration – but his wife rejected it out of hand and her word is law.
The campaign continued, against all odds, sometimes resembling a climb up a slippery slope. A disastrous broadcast that compared organized work in Israel with Hamas terrorists, harsh publicity regarding recycled bottles, gluttonous behavior in the PM’s residence, endless rows of generals and security experts stubbornly claiming that Bibi is endangering Israel’s security, 50 consecutive days of rockets over Tel Aviv and one Meir Dagan. But Netanyahu didn’t surrender.
In my book, Netanyahu, the Road to Power, which I wrote during his first term, I noted the “Bibi Spirit.” The young Netanyahu was infused with tremendous ambition and endless competitiveness. He was incapable of losing: not in chess, not in running, swimming, and certainly not in elections. Ever since his Jerusalem childhood, Bibi has cultivated a reputation as an incorrigible winner, turning even innocent board games into all-out war.
It was the Bibi Spirit that won him the 1996 elections soon after the Rabin assassination. In that campaign no one would have bet on Netanyahu. Even he had said it would take “a generation” for the Right to return to power. Nevertheless, he never gave up, didn’t resign, and decided to give it a try. Then, too, it was like climbing a slippery slope, but Netanyahu rolled up his sleeves and climbed.
On his side was a wave of murderous suicide attacks, courtesy of Hamas and a tired, unfocused opponent (Peres) and a brilliant campaign (“Peres will divide Jerusalem”) run by the trio of Avigdor Liberman, Arthur Finkelstein and Eyal Arad. Bibi won by the skin of his teeth and became the youngest prime minister in Israel’s history.
Lieberman, Finkelstein and Arad went the way of everyone who ever worked for Bibi: they were dismissed, resigned, escaped or thrown out, like many, many others. Ultimately, the only two left are Bibi, Sara and their two family lawyers. That’s all.
Since then the Bibi Spirit dispersed in all directions. Netanyahu grew fat, became corrupt, and addicted to all the pleasures of power and lost important components from his fighting spirit. From a young, energetic, young man with a mobile mind, he became an old leader, tired and heavy.
Netanyahu wrapped himself in conservative values and distanced himself from adventures and risks, a devout aficionado of the status quo.
Following the “lost decade” (1999- 2009), he managed to return – just – to the Prime Minister’s Office after losing by one seat to Tzipi Livni, but renewing the historic alliance with the ultra-Orthodox parties and establishing a coalition. Ever since, no one has managed to move him out of the house on Balfour Street. Bibi and Sara are entrenched there. Pure and simple.
Equipped with the lessons learned after his 1999 defeat, Netanyahu returned to power with the tools to keep him there forever. As he promised, he returned with media: Israel Hayom, his private mouthpiece, with a free daily distribution of hundreds of thousands of copies, constituting millions of dollars’ worth of messages and brainwashing on behalf of the royal couple and funded by American gambling mogul Sheldon Adelson.
Thus also with Makor Rishon (First Source) and Netanyahu is now imposing his yoke on the Broadcasting Authority (and removing all content from Gilad Erdan’s important reforms from the previous administration), increasing pressure on the commercial television channels and maintaining close relations with many of the Israeli moguls who also dominate influential media channels as well as Internet news sites.
Netanyahu has, in addition, managed to gain control and restrain most of Israel’s political regime’s regulators and gatekeepers. Without him, it is impossible to appoint a CEO. The attorney-general was once his closest counselor, and he also has influence over the state comptroller, the Civil Service commissioner, and all the rest.
All these bodies, who once had teeth and nails, lack motivation to act against him. The investigation into happenings in the PM’s residence was barely opened, after great delay and under fierce media pressure.
Publication of the State Comptroller’s Report was postponed until after the elections; only media criticism brought it forward (although the comptroller censored some of the harsher criticisms included in the original report).
Every such event is immediately met with a heavy battery of experienced lawyers (under the baton of the perpetual David Shimron) and a barrage of media artillery from the aggressive media bases annexed to the ruling family. Not in vain has Netanyahu been coined Erdogan.
Judging from the duo’s performances in their latest campaigns, Erdogan can learn a few things from Netanyahu.
At the same time, Netanyahu makes sure to maintain, ostensibly, what is known here as the “rule of law.”
When the justice minister reflects on the mere possibility of splitting the position of attorney-general, Netanyahu is quick to object. When the Supreme Court torpedoes his government’s policies on asylum seekers/ infiltrators, he folds.
Occasionally he sends his close associates and lackeys on various weird and wonderful missions.
When they are caught and criticized, Bibi is quick to withdraw. Thus when he sent his personal scarecrow, Ophir Akunis, to plant a silencing clause in the new Broadcasting Authority Law and realized the following day that he’d overstepped the mark, he shook himself free and left Akunis alone in the arena.
It’s an old Bibi trick that repeats itself with every new farce. Once it was Yuval Steinitz standing alone with the negotiations over VAT on fruits and vegetables, another time it’s Akunis and each time it’s a different patsy. Netanyahu stays dry even when he’s running between the drops. Machiavelli is smiling in his grave. He meant exactly this.
Bibi’s control of large portions of the media and the rule of law allow him to identify early all potential danger and thwart it. The last one was Gabi Ashkenazi. He identified it in time and stitched him up in a way that put out him out of action for at least five years.
When Gideon Sa’ar started to rise, some mysterious hand spread a wave of murky and false rumors and he was coined the new public enemy.
When Kahlon shone, the Netanyahus turned a cold shoulder that forced him to leave. Bibi is the be all and end all of everything, without him there is nothing, thus it was and thus it will be, such is the rule.
Strangest of all, it works.
On Wednesday, March 11, 2011, six days before the general election, Benjamin Netanyahu summoned a few of the leaders of the settler movement to an urgent meeting at the prime minister’s Jerusalem residence.
They were gathered there by Shlomo Filber, one of Bibi’s campaign managers and a close confidant (today he is director-general of the Communications Ministry).
It wasn’t the regular forum of Judea and Samaria leaders, who have ties with the media and regularly leak the contents of their meetings with the PM to the press. Filber gathered the settler leaders, who know how to work, to make a concerted effort and send hundreds of activists to the junctions, streets, towns and villages throughout Israel. At the PM’s residence, these activists were awaited by Netanyahu and Sara. Bibi delivered one of the most important speeches of his life: “I am about to lose the election.
We’re going to have to leave this house, and you will be banished from your homes.” Netanyahu warned his audience, “You’ll vote for Naftali Bennett and he might win a few more seats, but the administration will pass to Herzog and Tzipi. I suggest you start packing. Some of you will be thrown out of your homes, others will be hung out to dry, as soon as a freeze on building is imposed. The Left will rise to power and no one will care anymore that Bennett has two more seats.”
On Election Day, thousands of settlement activists stormed towns that have large concentrations of Likud supporters. They texted each and every potential voter and urged them not to vote for Bennett and not to vote for Moshe Kahlon. They went and picked up voters from their homes and took them to the voting stations.
A flabbergasted Moshe Kahlon saw it with his own eyes. He met the Likudniks rushing to vote. They identified him, patted him on the shoulder, and expressed their support – but added that they would vote for Bibi. Why? he asked.
The Arabs are on the ramparts, there’s no choice, they replied. They are flowing to the voting stations.
Left-wing NGOs are taking them to vote.
Translated by Ora Cummings.