REALITY CHECK: Method to Netanyahu’s madness

The prime minister is seeking to direct the electorate’s attention away from his lack of accomplishments

Netanyahu speaks during a cornerstone laying ceremony in Sderot. (photo credit: REUTERS)
Netanyahu speaks during a cornerstone laying ceremony in Sderot.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
You have to hand it to the prime minister. Benjamin Netanyahu has spent the past week successfully creating headlines so as to dull the findings of the state comptroller’s report into wrongdoings at his households, scheduled for release on Tuesday. If he had worked as hard on bringing down the cost of living as he has on attempting to solidify his electoral base, Israel would be a much better country to live in.
The report into allegations of excessive spending at Netanyahu’s two residencies is unlikely to be favorable to the premier, particularly given State Comptroller Yosef Shapira’s remarks that materials he has gathered “raise concern of compromised integrity or possible criminal activity.”
This is not the kind of report a serving prime minister wants to see surface just a month before an election. And so Netanyahu has reverted to the tactics that have so often helped him in the past: casting himself as a victim of an unfair press and declaring war on the Ashkenazi academic and artistic elite.
Netanyahu’s Facebook rant against Yediot Aharanot’s publisher Arnon (Noni) Moses – “the key factor behind the wave of smears against me and my wife” – was a classic example of the Israeli Right’s penchant for shooting the messenger whenever presented with bad news.
Dipping deep into conspiracy theory territory, Netanyahu alleged that Yediot and its sister website, Ynet, were “part of a media campaign to replace the Likud government by a left-wing one and allow Noni Moses to take over the media market again.”
In response, Nahum Barnea, the doyen of Israeli journalists and Yediot’s star columnist, commented that on this evidence, “Netanyahu is paranoid and should be hospitalized.”
Perhaps, but there is also method to Netanyahu’s madness. By making these remarks, the prime minister ensured that the media then spent the next day discussing whether it really was biased against Netanyahu, which meant that one more day of the election campaign was not spent dissecting Netanyahu’s miserable record of achievements after six continuous years in office.
Moreover, the mainstream media has always been viewed with suspicion, sometimes bordering on hatred, by those on the Right. Portraying himself as the victim of a biased press always plays well with this audience, and in the crucial battle for voters torn between the Likud and Bayit Yehudi, this tactic could serve Netanyahu well come polling day.
AND THEN came Netanyahu’s real masterstroke – his gross interference in the selection of judges for the Israel Prize. Aside from a small, limited circle of artists and academics, brilliantly captured in Joseph Cedar’s film Footnote a few years back, nobody really cares about this award, certainly not when compared to The Voice, A Star is Born or Master Chef. The Israel Prize really is the preserve of the Ashkenazi (in terms of culture, if not actual ethnicity) elite.
Again reverting to Facebook as opposed to a live interview in which he would risk facing difficult questions, Netanyahu explained his decision to dismiss some of the judges, which then led to mass resignations by other judges and contenders for the Israel Prize, generating banner headlines in the weekend press. The judging panels, the prime minister wrote, have become a “private playground of the radical Left, anti-Zionist and pro-Palestinian, that preaches refusal to serve in the IDF.”
Once more, Netanyahu succeeded in turning attention away from his dismal performance as prime minister and ignited a full-scale debate about what, in essence, is a non-issue. And at the same time, by hitting out at the “radical Left” and, heaven forfend, “pro-Palestinians,” the prime minister once more burnished his right-wing credentials in front of voters swaying between the Likud and Bayit Yehudi.
Now, when the state comptroller’s report into his alleged excessive spending is released, Netanyahu has already laid the foundations to claim that this report is just another example of the media and the country’s elite persecuting him because of his attempt to diminish left-wing influence on the levers of power. From the experience of another superb political campaigner, the ex-convict Arye Deri, we know that such tactics, more’s the pity, do actually work.
One can only hope Netanyahu has never seen the film Wag the Dog, a black comedy in which two weeks before an election, a spin-doctor and a Hollywood producer join efforts to fabricate a war in order to cover up a presidential sex scandal. We wouldn’t want him getting more ideas as to how to distract the electorate.
The writer is a former editor-in-chief of The Jerusalem Post.