Bibi’s incumbency (dis)advantage

Having a proven record in office is not always a good thing for a politician, as it opens him up to all kinds of criticism, some legitimate.

(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Nothing better illustrates the candidates’ hysteria in the run-up to next week’s Knesset election than the amount of coverage devoted to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s behavior during a rocket attack on Tuesday evening.
While the incumbent PM was about to deliver a pep talk to his supporters at a Likud campaign gathering in Ashdod, a red-alert siren began to blare, indicating that projectiles were on the way to the immediate vicinity. Though a familiar sound to Israelis, particularly in the South, the rise and fall of the air-raid siren always causes panic. The prospect of being hit by a missile will do that. 
As a result, many of the people in attendance began to shriek and run a bit wild. Netanyahu’s security detail immediately tried to whisk him off the stage to safety. But he did not rush.       
In a cool and collected manner, he paused to instruct the crowd to keep calm and slowly make their way to the nearest bomb shelter. Only then did he allow his guards to escort him off the premises. The IDF subsequently reported that two rockets launched by terrorists in Gaza were intercepted by the Iron Dome defense system.
When the incident was over, Netanyahu returned to the podium to resume the rally.
Whether the rockets were aimed specifically at the Israeli leader is questionable. Gaza jihadists regularly blitz Israeli cities and communities. In any case, the accuracy of their trajectories leaves a lot to be desired.
This didn’t stop the punditry from engaging in a debate about it, however. Nor did analysts miss the opportunity to note that the rockets had upstaged the stir Netanyahu purposely caused a mere two hours earlier, when he made a “dramatic” announcement that – if reelected on September 17 – he will extend Israeli sovereignty to the Jordan Valley and other areas in Judea and Samaria. This was a day after he held a press conference to reveal the existence of yet another secret nuclear weapons development site in Tehran, and to warn the Iranian regime that Israel “knows what you’re doing, Israel knows when you’re doing it, and Israel knows where you’re doing it.”
Faced with the crazy pace at which Netanyahu has managed to dominate the airwaves throughout the week, his rivals and detractors across the political spectrum have been acting as though someone knocked the wind out of them. Accusing the prime minister of simultaneously endangering the country by exposing military secrets and of spinning old news – all for propaganda purposes – they can barely catch their breath trying to make up their minds how to respond. And it’s no wonder, since the PM is not only running an election campaign; he’s also running the country.
The only accurate thing they have been able to come up with is to say that “Bibi is desperate,” which is true. The latest polls haven’t been boding well for him, after all, and he is on a mission to change the trend or prove the polls wrong.
But Bibi’s key contenders – Blue and White Party leaders Benny Gantz and Yair Lapid – are just as panicked. In spite of all their posturing, they know very well that Netanyahu’s record as the longest-serving prime minister in Israel’s history is not some kind of fluke. Of course, this is why they need to suggest that he’s only managed to stay in power through dubious means and ill-gotten gains. You know, such as taking and offering “bribes” in exchange for a positive portrayal in the media. Now there’s a hoot.
Which brings us to the ridiculous response – repeated in the press ad nauseam – to the way in which Netanyahu handled the rocket alert at the event in Ashdod.
Gantz and Lapid, who happened to be campaigning in nearby Ashkelon at the time of the siren, derided him for “going off to some bunker” in a cowardly manner and leaving the rest of the room to fend for itself. Unlike Bibi, they chanted, “We are not afraid.”
Labor leader Amir Peretz – famous for being a former defense minister who “observed” IDF troops through the wrong end of his binoculars – chided Netanyahu for “again disappearing while neglecting residents of the South.” True leadership, he added, “requires dealing with the root of the problem, rather than hiding behind the Iron Dome.” Oh, please.
Other criticism, such as from Yamina Party member Naftali Bennett and Yisrael Beytenu leader Avigdor Liberman, focused on the rockets themselves, blaming Netanyahu’s “surrender to terror” for the “lack of deterrence.”
In fairness to the Knesset candidates in parties other than Likud, Netanyahu has the benefit of incumbency. By virtue of his job, he necessarily receives more air time than anyone else, especially with the frenetic news cycle forced on Israel from within and without. Indeed, even US President Donald Trump’s firing of national security advisor John Bolton – whose stance on Iran is virtually identical to Netanyahu’s – hoisted the Israeli leader into the headlines. 
Not only that. On his way to Sochi to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Thursday, which in itself is an attention-grabber, Netanyahu told KAN Radio that Israel was “going to have no choice” but to go to war in Gaza in the near future.
Under such circumstances, how can the playing field for the other candidates possibly be made level?
The answer is that it can’t.
But let’s not kid ourselves. This has been just as much, if not more, of a disadvantage to Netanyahu as it has been a boon. Having a proven record in office is not always a good thing for a politician, as it opens him up to all kinds of criticism, some legitimate. Bibi may be the best we’ve got but that doesn’t mean he’s flawless. He’s certainly not perfect.
Furthermore, with a few exceptions, most of the media oppose him and dedicate many hours to the effort to oust him. This involves its engaging in lots of shoddy and shady “investigative” journalism – much of which ends up requiring an apology when it is discovered to be misleading – geared toward smearing Netanyahu personally and discrediting him politically.
Every move he makes is scrutinized and vilified. If he dares to defend himself against charges he deems false – and criticizes the police, the attorney-general or the Supreme Court – he is accused of undermining the pillars and fabric of democracy. When he backs the above institutions, on the other hand – for, say, upholding immigration laws, quashing certain riots or ruling in favor of the demolition of illegal Palestinian structures – he is called a racist and a fascist.
The instant his press conference on Iran’s nuclear-weapons development ended on Monday, he was belittled for using it as an election ploy. The following day, the TV channels cut off his Jordan Valley announcement in mid-sentence, for the same reason.
Meanwhile, his failed attempt to pass the Security Cameras Bill, which would enable the filming of the polling stations during Election Day, has provided endless anti-Bibi fodder on which his enemies have been dining with a vengeance.
Then there is the schlepping out of veteran Likudniks, such as former Knesset members Benny Begin and Michael Eitan, to bemoan how the party’s values have been destroyed by Bibi, and to declare that their consciences will not allow them to vote for him.
Boo hoo.
This is not to say that Bibi needs pitying. He’s a big boy, as they say, who has managed to win election after election while steering the country deftly through one crisis after another. It’s surprising that he still has the strength to keep going. Ironically, Gantz and Lapid already look more worn out than he.
But to weep over the fact that his press conferences and other forms of visibility give him an unfair electoral advantage is pathetic. As incumbents go, Netanyahu has a harder uphill battle than most.
If he succeeds on Tuesday, he will have earned, not been handed, the victory.