On Tuesday, a large number of Israeli cellphones received a text message from an unidentified number that bore a dire warning.
“Twenty-two years ago today, Benjamin Netanyahu signed the Hebron agreement with the terrorist Yasser Arafat and retreated from Hebron. Click here to see the handshake between Netanyahu and Arafat which concluded the ceding of the City of the Patriarchs.” A link leads to this Hebrew-language page with images from a 1997 news report about the Netanyahu-Arafat Hebron agreement.
The text message went on: “Now he pays $15 million each month to Hamas, even as it fires at us. The facts speak for themselves: Without a real right at his side – Netanyahu is left.”
The unsolicited text message — Israelis are being flooded by such anonymous spam as the election campaign gets underway — is part of an effort by the far-right to do to Prime Minister Netanyahu what he has sought to do to so many others: depict him as an irresponsible, malleable left-winger who cannot be trusted with the nation’s security.
These are still early days, but so far this strategy is shaping up as Netanyahu’s biggest headache – and, as he begins to employ it himself, as virtually his entire campaign.
Earlier this week, Benny Gantz, the popular ex-IDF chief who attracted nearly half as many Knesset seats in polls as the ruling Likud before even registering his new political party, naming his Knesset slate or expressing a political opinion (or, perhaps, because he had not yet done those things), sided with Druze activists seeking to amend the nation-state law. Gantz promised to do everything in his power to ensure the law would reflect their equal standing in the Jewish state.
Likud’s reaction was revealing not only for its content but for the coordinated way it deployed its response. It was as though the party’s entire cabinet cadre had turned out on social media, online videos and press statements to pronounce Gantz a “leftist.”
“When Gantz attacks the nation-state law and Tzipi Livni congratulates him for it, everyone understands the obvious: Gantz is left, just like [Yair] Lapid,” Likud said in a statement sent to the media.
“The cat’s out of the bag,” declared Tourism Minister Yariv Levin in a video. Gantz, he decreed, was finally outed as a closet “leftist.” Similar videos and comments came from across the Likud primary-candidate list: Miri Regev, Avi Dichter, Gideon Saar, Yehudah Glick, Oren Hazan and more.
The party even dug 19 years into the past, dredging up what it claimed was a moment that constituted Gantz’s great “betrayal” of the Druze community.
Gilad Erdan, the minister in charge of the police, recalled that Gantz was a brigadier general in the IDF command in the West Bank 19 years ago that failed to order the rescue of a Druze police officer, Madhat Yousef, who bled to death in a battle with Palestinians in Nablus at the start of the Second Intifada.
If Erdan ostensibly spoke for the police, Communications Minister Ayoub Kara, Likud’s most senior Druze member, seemed to claim to speak in the name of the Druze. He railed on social media networks about Yousef’s death – in tandem with and using similar language to Erdan.
In turn, Gantz’s campaign, or at least supporters of Gantz using slick campaign-like videography and messaging techniques, compiled the cacophony of Likud indignation together into a video that ended with the mocking words, “They’re scared.”
Some pundits wondered this week if Gantz intentionally triggered Likud’s pre-planned gang-up in order to produce just such a video, in which Likud politicians appear to trip over themselves to declare their deep, earnest and entirely unconvincing indignation.
Of course, it isn’t only a handful of overzealous Likud ministers who are helping to clarify how the election campaign is going to go. The same strategy was employed last month by Gantz himself, who let unnamed “sources close to him” tell reporters that he had ruled out joining forces with Hatnua leader Livni because she was too – you guessed it – “left-wing” for his avowedly conservative sensibilities.
Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid did the very same thing regarding Livni on Tuesday.
The point here isn’t merely that the politicians are all accusing anyone thought to be on their immediate left of being radical leftists, but that they don’t really mean it. Few Israelis think Gantz and Livni are separated by a profound ideological or policy gulf. Neither are Netanyahu and Gantz. Indeed, how could there be such a gulf when neither man seems willing to offer the sort of clear-cut policy statement that might differentiate him from his competitor? It wasn’t so long ago that Netanyahu sat (relatively) comfortably in a coalition with Livni herself.
The 2019 election campaign is shaping up as a kind of food chain of pretended indignation, with each party from the right-most flank left-ward accusing everyone to their left of being, well, on the left – carried across the political spectrum until one reaches the actual self-described left in Meretz or the Arab Joint List, where one finds campaigns busily preparing a mirror version of the game, in which everyone to their right is revealed to be a dastardly reactionary.
Likud seems so committed to this campaign of aspersions and sloganeering — or, at least, so worried about being the target of such campaigning — that it was the only major political party this week that refused to swear off running anonymous online ads this election season. We don’t yet know the details of Likud’s planned campaign, but we might reasonably infer from that simple fact that it is likely to heavily feature, among other distortions and manipulations, the sort of stalking horses the party knows will be too distasteful and damaging to be claimed as its own.
In politics, “stalking horses” refers to trial balloons of campaign messaging put out by anonymous parties to test their public acceptability before they are claimed by their creators. Likud is apparently planning — and expecting — a campaign replete with such connivances. And it isn’t the only one.
Buckle up, Israel. This election cycle is not going to feature a great deal of debate over policy or the nation’s real and complex challenges. The ride being prepared for Israeli voters will be something altogether sillier, and uglier.