Stories of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s intention to fly on Thursday to the United Arab Emirates for a meeting with Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan (MBZ) spurred the press to highlight the event’s proximity to the March 23 Knesset elections. The predictable swipe went beyond mere innuendo, however.
Barak Ravid of Beltway-area website Axios supposedly reported, yet in reality opined, that Netanyahu meant to use the occasion – that would be the first-ever official trip by an Israeli prime minister to the UAE and Netanyahu’s first since the signing of the Abraham Accords in September – “to rally his base and stress his foreign-policy advantage over his less experienced rivals.”
Aside from attributing a cynical motive to the move (which was delayed at the last minute, due to his wife’s hospitalization with appendicitis and Jordan’s blocking of his flight from entering its airspace), Ravid went on to explain that “Netanyahu is in need of a boost [as] his right-wing bloc is short of the 61 seats needed for a majority in the latest polls.”
Ravid further claimed that for 10 days, Netanyahu basically begged the hesitant Emiratis to receive him on their soil, and even had Mossad chief Yossi Cohen do his bidding. According to Ravid, they weren’t keen on being perceived as having “interfered” in the Israeli election. In other words, the UAE sheikhs wouldn’t want to give Netanyahu’s campaign some kind of unfair edge.
Far be it for mere mortals to question the veracity of the anonymous Emiratis who ostensibly provided this inside information. But, while Netanyahu’s interest in touting the peace deals that he has been forging with Muslim-majority nations, it’s a bit hard to believe that UAE leaders are concerned about not appearing neutral where the Israeli election is concerned. In fact, they’re probably hoping for a Netanyahu victory, especially in view of the defeat in November of now-former US president Donald Trump, who brokered the Abraham Accords. The deal was born and embraced, in large part, due to mutual interests against Iran’s hegemonic aims and nuclear program.
THE HOOPLA surrounding Netanyahu’s trip abroad at this juncture came on the heels of a similar “scandal”: a scheduled visit to Israel by Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla and associates. The purpose of the trip, scheduled to coincide with the completion of the delivery to the country of 10 million doses of BioNTech, was for Bourla to discuss with Netanyahu the possibility of building a vaccine-production plant and R&D center in Israel.
The meeting never happened. Pfizer, whose executives had only received their first injections of the vaccine that they developed, told online Business Insider last Saturday: “We remain interested in meeting the scientific leaders and other important stakeholders who were vital to the successful COVID-19 vaccination program in Israel. Any company visit will likely occur once travel conditions improve and COVID-19-related restrictions are eased.”
But the real reason for the cancellation, again according to unnamed sources in the know, was that Bourla succumbed to pressure by anti-Netanyahu forces bent on preventing the prime minister from being able to exploit the inevitable photo-op in his campaign.
Achrayut Leumit (“national responsibility”) movement CEO Oshi Elmaliach, for instance, sent a letter last Wednesday to Bourla, Netanyahu and State Comptroller Matanyahu Englman, in which he warned that such a get-together at this time would constitute “election propaganda,” and hence a criminal offense.
Another “anybody but Bibi” plea to Bourla came from Weizmann Institute computer scientist and Israel Prize laureate David Harel, who wrote: “[O]ur coming election is so incredibly critical that I find myself gasping for breath, day and night.”
A meeting between Bourla and Netanyahu, he argued, could “turn out to be a disastrous contribution to the destruction of Israel as a democracy, and indeed as the start-up nation, with great contributions to science, medicine and technology.”
It’s hard not to guffaw at the absurdity.
SPEAKING OF laughter, the Central Elections Committee (CEC) last week banned an episode of Channel 13’s satirical show, “Stand-up Nation,” in which Netanyahu does a nine-minute shtick. As soon as the network Reshet posted a promo of the segment on Twitter – with the caption: “For the first time in Israel, a prime minister comes to do stand-up” – a petition was filed with the CEC against the broadcast.
The petitioner, attorney Shachar Ben Meir, claimed that Netanyahu’s appearance on the program would be used as “election propaganda.”
The chairman of the CEC, Supreme Court Justice Uzi Vogelman, concurred. In his decision, he said that though the purpose of the segment in question is, indeed, entertainment, “throughout the clip, there are messages that relate directly to issues on the political agenda.”
He further argued that airing the skit so close to the election, and the absence of rival candidates sharing the spotlight, “could create the impression that it was election propaganda.”
Now, that really is comical.
In the first place, no Israeli is under illusions about Netanyahu or any of the party leaders attempting to defeat him at the ballot box. Nor do his supporters or opponents rely on campaign ads, text messages and humorous gigs to form an opinion.
Secondly, politicians running for election – or reelection, as in Netanyahu’s case – all go into high gear to persuade the public to vote for them. The way they do this is to tout their own assets and exaggerate the flaws of their contenders.
Not only isn’t this a hot news flash; it’s so old and obvious that it shouldn’t be worth mentioning. Yet, when Netanyahu works hard to win, his actions are judged as sui generis, and his incumbency is held against him. The irony is glaring.
THOUGH IT’S true that by virtue of his premiership, the longest in Israel’s history, he has concrete accomplishments to emphasize and boast about – particularly the peace treaties with former regional foes and the successful inoculation drive – he’s also got a slew of enemies coming at him from every direction. His rivals, on the other hand, are able to point out what’s wrong with every aspect of the country and make grandiose promises about solving all its ills.
In other words, the field isn’t level for any of the players. Still, if anything, Netanyahu is at a disadvantage.
For one thing, he bears the burden of being the main focus of the political discourse, with the actual issues taking a back seat. For another, it is he – rather than the Israeli electoral system – who is blamed for the impasses that have led to the endless cycle of elections.
Most damning of all, he is faulted for “mishandling” the COVID-19 pandemic, by “killing” thousands of Israelis on the one hand, and unnecessarily and repeatedly closing the economy on the other. His nemeses attack him for having left the borders open and as soon as he closed them, of denying Israelis the “basic right” to return home from abroad.
Unless these Israelis happen to be ultra-Orthodox, of course, in which case, they are charged with carrying variants of the virus through customs, along with their luggage. And this, the anonymous “they” claim comes with the covert help of Netanyahu, who has sold his soul to the black-hat-wearing devil in order to stay in power and out of jail. Meanwhile, when he dares to defend himself against the criminal charges that he deems false, he is pilloried for not fessing up and evacuating his seat.
INDEED, As I wrote during the second round of elections in September 2019, every step he takes is scrutinized and vilified. Mass demonstrations take place weekly outside his residence in Jerusalem and at intersections across the state. In addition, most of the press is openly praying for his ouster, if not incarceration.
It was thus hilarious when Likud renegade and New Hope Party leader Gideon Sa’ar complained to Channel 12 on Wednesday that “every TV studio has someone whose goal is to perpetuate Netanyahu’s rule.”
Only a seasoned politician could say such a thing with a straight face. His audience probably had a hard time stifling a grin.
The good news is that the public isn’t paying attention to the extraneous noise. The Israeli electorate may be ballot-weary and fed up, with many vowing not to participate at all and some still wavering about how to vote.
But nobody is basing his or her decision on whether Netanyahu is pictured with MBZ or Bourla – or filmed performing an inane comedy routine.
Trashing Netanyahu is bad enough. Insulting voters’ intelligence is not only condescending; it’s beyond the pale.