Live from Jerusalem bus station bathrooms: Netanyahu’s election day on Facebook

PM takes to social media in increasingly frantic display imploring Israelis to vote for him or face the horrors of a ‘left-wing Arab government’

Raoul Wootliff is a former Times of Israel political correspondent and Daily Briefing podcast producer.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaking to commuters in front of the public bathrooms at the Jerusalem Central Bus Station, September 17, 2019. (Screen capture: Facebook Live)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaking to commuters in front of the public bathrooms at the Jerusalem Central Bus Station, September 17, 2019. (Screen capture: Facebook Live)

In the final hours of the previous election day in April, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appeared in a Facebook Live video on his page, in which he could be seen taking his get-out-the-vote push to the beach, imploring Israelis enjoying the Mediterranean waters to head to their local polling station.

“Get out of the water, leave your homes and go vote for Likud,” Netanyahu, who had ditched his tie but chose not to enter the water, told beach-goers in the coastal city of Netanya, as well as thousands of Israelis watching on their phones and computers.

With Netanyahu’s “Likud TV” — a faux news channel that dressed up Likud campaign videos as news reports and shared them on Faceboook — having been his primary tool for reaching voters throughout that campaign, the beach video was the first Facebook Live broadcast in which the prime minister spoke directly to the public.

It was certainly not the last.

Since then, throughout the latest election campaign, Netanyahu has appeared in almost daily Facebook Live broadcasts, singing his own praises and those of the Likud party, while attacking his political rivals and media outlets for their allegedly negative coverage of him.

On Tuesday, election day round two, Netanyahu took his Facebook Live game to new levels, posting videos almost every hour in which he increasingly frantically called on the public to stop enjoying the national day off and get to the polling station to vote for him — or else.

The issuing of dire warnings about purportedly low rates of voter turnout among supporters — known as a “gevalt campaign” — has become a fixture of parties’ campaigns in recent elections.

Netanyahu’s first Facebook Live video Tuesday, which came from outside the polling station where he and his wife, Sara, had just voted, started with a fairly standard call for his supporters to make sure they used the day to vote for him. “I will tell you a secret — I voted Mahal,” he said in the three-minute video of the mem het lamed letters used to represent Likud on ballot slips.

“And I am here to tell you that you need to too. Go and vote and put Mahal in the ballot box. Only Mahal,” he repeated before namechecking the US president as he issued his first warning of the day.

“President Trump said yesterday that the vote will be close. It will be close, so go and vote,” he said.

Then, back in his residence in Jerusalem, Netanyahu made his first real plea for help in a nine-minute video that opened with an account of the “many hard real battles” he has faced in his life, including during his military service in the elite Sayeret Matkal unit.

“I’ll tell you, this is the hardest battle of all,” he said, explaining how “the media” is claiming that the face was close, “but it’s not a close race. We are behind and we need your help desperately.”

“Go to the polling station, help carry the Likud’s stretcher,” he continued.

The next video, this time 10 minutes long, appears to catch the prime minister at his desk in the middle of a deeply important conversation about how not only was his Likud losing but how the Arab parties and the left were surging.

“We have to get them out,” he says into the phone before pausing for the supposed response from the other end of the line. “No, no, it’s not looking good. We have to get them out.”

Repeatedly quoting a Channel 13 reporter who said that the turnout in Arab cities and towns was “surprisingly high,” Netanyahu implores the anonymous caller to “start to take the Arab turnout seriously,” also claiming, without offering proof, that figures in the Palestinian Authority want him out of office.

Several other similar clips were published throughout the morning, some including various Likud figures such as former Jerusalem mayor Nir Barkat, and all with the increasing warning that Likud is falling behind due to high Arab turnout as well as high turnout in “left-wing locales.”

In another clip that recalled his foray to the seashore in April, Netanyahu made an early afternoon visit to Jerusalem’s Central Bus Station where, standing, presumably accidentally, in front of clearly signposted public bathrooms, he addressed the gathered and cheering crowd via loudspeaker, repeating the messages from his previous videos, but this time with an urgent pleading not seen before.

“What are you doing here?” he bellowed to the crowd.

“Go and vote Mahal,” he continued emphatically, while holding up a giant likud voting ballot.

Back at the official residence, he held an “emergency meeting” with senior Likud figures about the allegedly high Arab turnout, in which each of those present repeated Netanyahu’s own warnings, adding their own spin, in more ways than one. Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotoveli spoke of how Israelis must vote “in order to save the Land of Israel.” Housing Minister Yoav Galant, a former IDF general, spoke of the “immense security danger that a left-wing government supported by the Arabs” would bring.

Separately from his Facebook Live posts, the social network, in the early hours of the afternoon, briefly suspended a chatbot operated by Netanyahu’s official page for the second time in five days, because it illegally shared polling information.

The step was taken by Facebook after the bot repeatedly violated the social media giant’s rules as well as an Israeli law that forbids publicizing polls in the days before elections.

Facebook originally said it had banned the chatbot for the remainder of election day, but some two hours later Central Election Committee chief Hanan Melcer, who had made the initial request to ban it, made the decision to reinstate it.

The chatbot was reinstated after Likud MK David Bitan promised it would stop being used to publish poll results or alleged poll results. The move was also conditioned on Netanyahu stopping illegally giving radio or television interviews.

The prime minister, amazingly, responded to the suspension during a Facebook Live broadcast, saying: “Facebook is unable to stand up to leftist pressure.” He later took down that video.

After one more public visit, this time to Jerusalem’s Mahane Yehuda Market, filld with the same warnings, Netanyahu settled down to what appeared to be a final series of “emergency broadcasts” on his Facebook page to end off the day.

“This is not a trick,” Netanyahu said of his assertion that Likud voters aren’t going to the polls.

“Believe me,” he implored of the public.

They might just.

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