Trump Card

Fake news, per­sonal at­tacks. Ne­tanyahu is chan­nel­ing the U.S. pres­i­dent to save his scan­dal-plagued ad­min­is­tra­tion

Newsweek - - Periscope - OPIN­ION BY MARC SCHUL­MAN @Mul­tied

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.

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