It was a stretch, but we were trying to believe it — that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Congress speech is all about safeguarding Israel and not motivated by electioneering. But in 30 seconds on Saturday, this all went out of the window.
Within this tiny bite of time, his campaign did what it should have tried its very hardest to avoid — turning the clash with the U.S. into a campaign issue. Worse still, it unwittingly makes the case for why the Congress speech, set for March 3, is misguided.
In his campaign’s latest video, as dramatic music plays and black-and-white images take you back in time, a narrator tells you that the U.S. State Department was against the declaration of Israeli independence in 1948. The Zionist leader David Ben-Gurion defied it, and created Israel.
Text then flashes on to the screen asking: “Would we be here today if Ben-Gurion hadn’t done the right thing?” Viewers are left with the slogan: “Only Netanyahu, only Likud.”
It is a stirring message — until one actually stops to think about it.
If Bibi Netanyahu truly believes that he must go to Congress for the sake of Israel’s security, then he needs to go and respectfully state his case, while doing the maximum possible damage control in terms of his relationship with the White House. He would go with a heavy heart that he has angered the White House, but a conviction that it was a speech that needed to be made.
My colleagues at this newspaper suggested in a recent editorial, Netanyahu needed to make the diplomatic best out of a bad situation. Quite. Instead, he decided to make political hay out of it.
He has tried to campaign on his clash with the White House. Netanyahu constantly talks about friends being prepared to disagree with one another. Yes — friends can disagree, but they shouldn’t then leverage the fact they are disagreeing to try to score points. Using the disagreement in this way is offensive to Washington.
Beyond this, the 1948 comparison is pompous and misguided. In a single declaration Ben-Gurion brought about Jewish statehood for the first time in two millennia; Netanyahu is talking about one speech in a prolonged campaign on the Iranian threat, and a speech of dubious diplomatic value.
There’s no comparison between the creation of Israel and the upcoming speech, but let’s accept the odd parallel for a few moments anyway. The Zionist movement knew that it had the support where it really mattered. It wasn’t going it alone — the American President Harry Truman had privately made it clear to the Zionist leader Chaim Weizmann that he supported the statehood move. There is a world of difference between acting with “only” presidential backing in Tel Aviv and touching down in Washington and, albeit with congressional support, giving a speech that upsets both president and the State Department.
If the history of the 1948 era is being explored for lessons, they are, sadly for the Netanyahu campaign, the opposite of the point it was trying to prove. Few people recall how Congress responded to the declaration of Israeli independence. And whatever the State Department thought, the important thing was that Truman gave an immediate positive reaction, and made the U.S. the first country to recognize Israel — and starting the special friendship that has existed ever since between the two countries. Ben-Gurion penned Truman a latter thanking him for giving the “lead to the whole world,” and the rest is history.
And so, Netanyahu’s campaign is bragging about clashing with the president of the United States by invoking a story that asserts the utter importance of what the president thinks and does, in spite of others in Washington.
This video was a low point even for an election campaign that has been so full of big publicity-grabbing stunts and so lacking in real substance.
Take, for example, the loud calls to disqualify the Arab lawmaker Haneen Zoabi from running due to her inflammatory comments. They became a rallying cry, and backing her disqualification became a benchmark of patriotism. But it was obvious all along that it was just about the publicity opportunity and the galvanizing effect that hatred towards this figure has.
Similar considerations drove calls to disqualify the Kahanist Baruch Marzel. There are strong arguments that neither should be allowed to run — but it was clear that even if the Central Elections Committee banned them, as it did, the Supreme Court would reinstate them. And this is exactly what happened, with a panel of judges putting them back in the running last week.
There was a similar pattern with another so-called scandal that died with a whimper last week. Netanyahu’s Likud claimed, with indignation, that rival parties the Zionist Union and Meretz were effectively receiving money from foreign donors, which is illegal. It argued that the V15 campaign for a change of government, which is heavily funded by diaspora Jews such as S. Daniel Abraham and Daniel Lubetzky, was in effect donating to Israeli parties.
This claim was dismissed as “fanfare” by the Central Elections Committee when it met to consider it was week. It was clear that the objection never stood a chance of being taken seriously by election officials — its supposed evidence that V15 and the parties are in cahoots consisted of things like records of Facebook “likes” for V15 by people connected with the parties. But this was irrelevant, as by the time they reached the committee the V15 allegations had served their purpose, creating a media buzz, and nobody was interested when they were discredited.
The Zionist Union also neglected the issues for fluff during much of its campaign. It allowed the various scandals surrounding Netanyahu, such as the so called “Bottlegate” about recycling revenues in the prime ministerial residence, to dominate the agenda instead of veering it towards questions that are important for the day-to-day lives of Israelis. Only in the last few days has it taken its campaign up a gear, but it is still too thin on content.
Israeli parties patronize voters when they presume that they don’t want to engage with issues. In the last election, the big surprise winner was the party that got voters rallied around a real issue — Yesh Atid, which went from zero to 19 Knesset seats, by championing plans to draft the ultra-Orthodox to the army. Candidates are failing to internalize this at their peril.
Nathan Jeffay’s column appears twice a month.