Will Bibi’s Charm Offensive Work?


Even for the resilient Netanyahu family, the last week has been a headache. Channel 2 has reported that Sara Netanyahu is due to be indicted on corruption charges any day, and Benjamin Netanyahu’s former chief of staff has been arrested.

For Netanyahu, a crisis is an impetus to campaign. Already last week, the prime minister started to look very much like a politician on a targeted charm offensive, or even taking a Theresa May-type risk and entering election mode to try to prove his popularity in the face of adversity.

Promising the world to settlers, laying down the law with powerful foreign visitors, promising to battle against illegal immigrants and hitting out at the media, Netanyahu seems like a man with a popularity-boosting mission.

The developments of recent days have been sensational. Netanyahu is under police investigation in two cases, one for allegedly receiving expensive gifts from businessmen and the other for allegedly trying to cut a deal to receive better coverage in the Yediot Achronot newspaper by using his political power to hold back a competitor. Now, one of his closest political associates has been arrested in an unrelated case.

Police arrested his former chief of staff, David Sharan, on Sunday, because he is suspected of corruption in agreements for Israel to buy German-made submarines. This means that while Netanyahu has not been questioned in this affair — a saga that raises serious questions about how one of Israel’s largest-ever defense purchases was decided upon — both his former aide and his personal lawyer have been.

David Shimron, Netanyahu’s cousin and personal attorney, also represented the Israeli agent for shipbuilder ThyssenKrupp, Michael Ganor, who is alleged to have bribed defense officials.

This case has the power to shake Israel’s defense establishment, and it is widening — Sharan’s arrest on Sunday was followed on Monday by that of former cabinet minister Eliezer Sandberg. On Tuesday it was revealed that Shai Brosh, former commander of an Israeli Navy unit, had also been arrested. In the eyes of many Israelis, if there were dirty dealings surrounding submarines, Netanyahu will be dammed if he did know about it and damned if he was out-of-the-loop enough to not know. The investigations that directly involve Netanyahu have already prompted some politicians, including Labor leader Avi Gabbay, to call for his resignation.

Netanyahu knows well the antidote to this hostility. He knows where, in Israeli society, people are prepared to dismiss probes into nationalist politicians as the stuff of conspiracies, and where leaders promising nationalist policies are embraced regardless of personal foibles. And he is heading there, to the rightist camp, to be embraced — to strengthen his safety net in case his troubles deepen.

Last week, he made one of the most impassioned declarations of right-wing beliefs he has delivered as prime minister. Netanyahu, who was speaking at a settler celebration to mark 50 years since Israel captured the West Bank, left his audience thrilled after a speech of almost 10 minutes, which it deemed pitch perfect. He said everything that the crowd wanted to hear. “We have returned here to stay forever; there will be no more uprooting of settlements in the Land of Israel,” he promised. “No settlements will be uprooted.”

Netanyahu’s message was clear: Whatever he has needed to say for the sake of diplomacy, his heart has always been with the settlers and settlements, and always will be. Netanyahu got the embrace he wanted, not only through the rapturous applause, but when the mayor of the West Bank’s Samaria region, Yossi Dagan, made him an honorary citizen of Samaria. It was the signal of political endorsement that Netanyahu was hoping for.

Pushing beyond the settler right, the prime minister is also working hard to impress the right wing within the Green Line. He visited south Tel Aviv on Sunday, his second visit in the space of three days to an area where Jewish Israelis are furious at the high population of illegal African immigrants living among them. “We are here on a mission to give back south Tel Aviv to the Israeli residents,” he said, impressing Jewish south Tel Avivians as much as he impressed his settler audience. He even spoke about these Israelis in Sunday’s cabinet meeting, saying that their “suffering is unbelievable.”

But Netanyahu is aware that while his speeches attract a lot of attention, so do critical reports about him in the media. How does he counter the effect of this? By echoing Donald Trump and hitting out at Israel’s “fake news industry,” which is at its “peak.” Delivering his comments at a rally of his Likud Party, he presented himself as a victim and argued that the media have taken aim at the party, not just him. He said that the media are “doing everything to hurt me and my wife because they think that if they bring me or her down, they will bring down us, Likud.”

The decision to hold the rally now, as well as his choice of comments, seem to be part of his great galvanization project. Perhaps this project also influenced his decision to scold United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres during his Israel visit last week. He said that Israel and the U.N. have a “troubled relationship,” claiming that the U.N. has “an absurd obsession with Israel.” The UN has “failed” its mandate to promote peace and security when it comes to Israel, its cultural agency UNESCO “makes a mockery” of world heritage by passing resolutions airbrushing Jewish history from Jerusalem and some U.N. institutions allow Palestinian hate speech to “flourish.” Nothing says statesmanship to right-leaning Israelis like a PM who is prepared to give a hard time to a U.N. chief.

Netanyahu ensured his survival two-and-a-half years ago by strengthening his credentials on the right. This demographic returned him to office in the 2015 general election, when he looked set to be defeated by the center-left. He avoided this fate after backing off from the two-state solution and controversially warning voters that Arabs were heading to polling stations “in droves.” Again, he is firming up support — seemingly to make sure a safety net is in place to break his fall from power, should investigations make it likely, but possibly to take the counter-intuitive step of calling elections soon, to pull the rug from under his critics by getting the nation to prove it wants him and cares more about his ideology and abilities than corruption probes.

Whether we are seeing a general popularity campaign or an early election campaign, one thing is almost certain. When he stands up to give his annual speech at the United Nations in a week and a half, talking tough on Iran and other regional threats, he will be addressing the politicians and diplomats in the room, but at least in part making the next campaign speech for his audience back home.

Nathan Jeffay’s column appears twice a month.