Fake news, personal attacks. Netanyahu is channeling the U.S. president to save his scandal-plagued administration
under normal circumstances, the re-election of Benjamin Netanyahu to yet another term as prime minister would be a no-brainer.
The Israeli economy is humming on all four cylinders; unemployment is low; and over the past 15 years, Israel has become one of the world’s leading technology powerhouses. And it should be noted that the country’s security situation has been remarkably quiet—at least by Israeli standards. Far from becoming a pariah, Israel has diplomatic relations with more countries than ever before.
Even so, Netanyahu may not be sleeping soundly. In February, his Likud party held primaries. Although the prime minister remains as popular as ever, when party members voted, they paid almost no attention to Netanyahu’s wishes. They propelled one of his archrivals, former Education Minister Gideon Sa’ar, close to the top of the list. This left a lingering sense that the Netanyahu era could be coming to a close.
Why? Perhaps because for the first time since he ran and lost against Ehud Barak in 1998, there is a viable opponent: former Israel Defense Forces chief of staff Benny Gantz. Even more important is the realization that the Israeli justice system is closing in on the prime minister. It has been a year since the police made their initial recommendation that Netanyahu be indicted.
Since then, the police have recommended his indictment in two more cases. The final decision now rests with the attorney general.
When it became clear an indictment would be handed down, Netanyahu tried to delay the decision by calling for an early election. However, Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit has moved quickly and indicated he will soon make his announcement. Still, under Israeli law, before a public official is indicted, that official has the right to respond to the allegations. This process can take six months to one year. As things stand, when Israelis go to the polls on April 9, Netanyahu will not officially be under indictment, but he will certainly be under a cloud.
So what is Netanyahu doing to ward off the twin threats? Taking a page from President Donald Trump’s playbook, he’s saying all the mainstream media produce “fake news.” By doing so, he hopes to insulate himself somewhat from the expected coverage of the indictment. Unlike Trump, who seems to enjoy being interviewed, Netanyahu has not been interviewed by the mainstream Israeli press in four years. Instead, he relies on Israel’s most widely circulated newspaper, Israel Hayom, owned by his patron Sheldon Adelson. More recently, Netanyahu created a TV channel, Likud TV, where he gives “interviews” many times a week.
These outlets, combined with effective use of social media, have provided a means for Netanyahu to reach out to his voters and attack Mandelblit without the pesky interventions of critical or objective media. Netanyahu has blasted the Mandelblit for “being weak” and “giving in” to the pressure of “the left.” Thus, if Netanyahu is indicted, he can claim it was not by virtue of the right-leaning police, or his handpicked attorney general, but because of “the left.”
As for the threat from Gantz, Netanyahu has worked hard to paint him as a “weak leftist,” despite the appointment of people with rightwing views in positions of authority on Gantz’s party list. The opposition leader’s election, Netanyahu argues, would indirectly bring Arab-israelis into the seats of power.
If that’s not enough to convince a reluctant voter to support Netanyahu, he has one last card: Trump, who remains very popular in Israel. In February, the Likud put up giant banners picturing the two leaders together.
Will the pre-emptive actions of Netanyahu succeed? At the moment, his party still polls very well. But if Mandelblit makes his expected announcement, anything could happen. This Israeli election is in uncharted territory.