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Reporter's notebook

Netanyahu connects with supporters, one protective glass cage appearance at a time

The Likud leader is touring the country to pump up voter turnout ahead of the November election; last week, he spent 7 minutes before one excited group in Ramat Gan

Carrie Keller-Lynn

Carrie Keller-Lynn is a political and legal correspondent for The Times of Israel

  • Likud party head Benjamin Netanyahu at a Tel Aviv election event in his "Bibi Ba" campaign bus, September 7, 2022 (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)
    Likud party head Benjamin Netanyahu at a Tel Aviv election event in his "Bibi Ba" campaign bus, September 7, 2022 (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)
  • Ralliers at a Ramat Gan election event for Likud party head Benjamin Netanyahu's "Bibi Ba" campaign bus, September 22, 2022 (Carrie Keller-Lynn/The Times of Israel)
    Ralliers at a Ramat Gan election event for Likud party head Benjamin Netanyahu's "Bibi Ba" campaign bus, September 22, 2022 (Carrie Keller-Lynn/The Times of Israel)
  • Ralliers at a Ramat Gan election event for Likud party head Benjamin Netanyahu's "Bibi Ba" campaign bus, September 22, 2022 (Carrie Keller-Lynn/The Times of Israel)
    Ralliers at a Ramat Gan election event for Likud party head Benjamin Netanyahu's "Bibi Ba" campaign bus, September 22, 2022 (Carrie Keller-Lynn/The Times of Israel)
  • Shai, Gilad, and friends at a Ramat Gan election event for Likud party head Benjamin Netanyahu's "Bibi Ba" campaign bus, September 22, 2022 (Carrie Keller-Lynn/The Times of Israel)
    Shai, Gilad, and friends at a Ramat Gan election event for Likud party head Benjamin Netanyahu's "Bibi Ba" campaign bus, September 22, 2022 (Carrie Keller-Lynn/The Times of Israel)
  • Likud party head Benjamin Netanyahu at a Ramat Gan election event in his "Bibi Ba" campaign bus, September 22, 2022 (Carrie Keller-Lynn/The Times of Israel)
    Likud party head Benjamin Netanyahu at a Ramat Gan election event in his "Bibi Ba" campaign bus, September 22, 2022 (Carrie Keller-Lynn/The Times of Israel)

Driving into Ramat Gan with a motorcade, sirens blaring, and ushered into a waiting custom-outfitted, glass-paneled truck-borne enclosure, Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu greeted supporters last Thursday evening.

Since first bursting onto the scene earlier this month, Netanyahu’s “Bibi Ba,” or “Bibi is Coming,” bus has become a bit of a pop-culture phenomenon. Alternatively referred to as an “aquarium,” a “glass box,” or a “pope mobile,” the enclosure has puzzled Israelis, generated memes and led to a prime-time spoof on popular sketch comedy show “Eretz Nehederet” (“A Wonderful Country”).

Netanyahu has explained that the Shin Bet security agency has asked him to stand behind protective glass while making scheduled public appearances. But fulfilling that security request with a hermetically sealed, air-conditioned aquarium on wheels was the Netanyahu campaign’s choice. The price tag, public broadcaster Kan reported, is about NIS 700,000 ($200,000) for 60 days of the “Bibi Ba.”

Campaigning to retake power in November after losing it last June for the first time since 2009, Netanyahu is focusing on driving up voter turnout, believing it will be a determining factor in the outcome of the election. The “Bibi Ba” campaign tour initiative sees him visiting communities to drum up enthusiasm among voters exhausted by the prospect of Israel’s fifth election since 2019.

As Netanyahu’s right-religious bloc polls at or just below the critical 61-seat majority it needs to form a government, motivating a sufficient number of tired Likud voters to go to the polls may prove decisive.

Netanyahu arrived at the Ramat Gan event two hours after the scheduled start time. By this time, eventgoers were collectively fed up with the peppy emcee, who seemed to have lost her credibility in repeatedly promising Netanyahu’s “immediate” arrival.

Still, they didn’t hold it against the former prime minister when he finally came.

“You know where the votes are? They are here, in the neighborhood… On the third floor. In your neighbor’s home,” Netanyahu told the gathered crowd of some 300 people, imploring them to bring Likud-supporting friends to vote. “It depends on you. You can make it happen!”

Likud party head Benjamin Netanyahu at a Ramat Gan election event in his “Bibi Ba” campaign bus, September 22, 2022 (Carrie Keller-Lynn/The Times of Israel)

The Likud leader’s thesis resonated with rally-goers, as some said their family or friends were drained by the political instability.

“Either they’ll vote for Bibi or they won’t vote at all,” said Shai, 15, who despite being too young to vote, came to the rally adorned with Likud gear, Israeli flags, and pro-Netanyahu banners. Shai’s enthusiasm notwithstanding, the teenager – who declined to share his last name – said that he wasn’t sure if his parents would actually make it to the polls on November 1 because “they’ve had it already” as Israel careens into yet another election.

Some commentators have noted the irony of a politician traveling the country in a glass box to connect with the people. But that criticism was missed by many gathered in Ramat Gan on Thursday evening.

Shai, Gilad, and friends at a Ramat Gan election event for Likud party head Benjamin Netanyahu’s “Bibi Ba” campaign bus, September 22, 2022 (Carrie Keller-Lynn/The Times of Israel)

“We already know the opinions. We came out to support him,” said Meir Levy, 70, from Ramat Gan, who attended the event along with friends. Levy said he comes from a Likud family and only once diverged from voting for the party, when he cast a vote for Avigdor Liberman’s Yisrael Beytenu. “I regret it because he went to the left,” Levy said of the ideologically right-wing politician who broke with Netanyahu’s bloc in 2018.

“I’m very unhappy with the leaders today,” said Ramat Gan resident Shulamit Amir. “I want the right-wing to come back. I want [to maintain] a complete country,” she said, eschewing territorial concessions to a future Palestinian state.

Although he once publicly promoted a two-state solution, Netanyahu attacked Prime Minister Yair Lapid for putting the issue back on the public agenda during the premier’s speech last Thursday at the United Nations General Assembly in New York. Netanyahu himself once supported the idea on the same UN stage, most recently in 2016.

Likud supporter Shulamit Amir at a Ramat Gan election event for Likud party head Benjamin Netanyahu’s “Bibi Ba” campaign bus, September 22, 2022 (Carrie Keller-Lynn/The Times of Israel)

Today, however, Netanyahu is fighting to return to power and has tied himself to the settler movement to do so. The second largest party in his right-religious bloc is projected to be Religious Zionism-Otzma Yehudit, a far-right faction that is deeply supportive of Israel’s religious and security claim to land Palestinians want for a future state.

Otzma Yehudit’s firebrand leader Itamar Ben Gvir’s popularity has swelled since he first entered Knesset in 2021 on the back of an alliance with Religious Zionism brokered by Netanyahu. Netanyahu strong-armed Ben Gvir’s return to the Religious Zionism fold earlier this month, guaranteeing that the combined faction will soar far above the electoral threshold necessary to enter Knesset, whereas the Bezalel Smotrich-headed Religious Zionism component, running separately, might have fallen below.

Far-right MK Itamar Ben Gvir arrives to visit the Temple Mount in Jerusalem’s Old City on August 7, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Ben Gvir’s extreme nationalist and religious stance extends beyond support for West Bank settlements. He is against Arab-Jewish political partnerships and interreligious romantic relationships, and backs deportations for those he deems disloyal to the state and the death penalty for convicted terrorists. He has also twice partnered with anti-LGBT party Noam to run on a unified slate, including, again with Netanyahu’s encouragement, for this upcoming election.

Even in the Ramat Gan crowd that came to see Netanyahu, Ben Gvir found support. Gilad, a baby-faced 16-year-old who also declined to share his last name, said that if he could vote, he’d support Ben Gvir “because he wants to kill terrorists.”

“He’s the king,” Gilad, who came to the event with Likud-supporting friends, said of the Otzma Yehudit leader.

Despite Ben Gvir’s hardline stances, several Likud voters said they were not concerned about the prospect of far-right Ben Gvir being part of a Likud-led government.

Ramat Gan resident Meir Levy at an election event for Likud party head Benjamin Netanyahu’s “Bibi Ba” campaign bus, September 22, 2022 (Carrie Keller-Lynn/The Times of Israel)

Echoing a line pushed by Likud candidates themselves, supporter Levy said he’s not worried “because the one who will decide is Bibi, not Ben Gvir.”

Netanyahu’s Ramat Gan appearance lasted only seven minutes before he was whisked away. When he left, he seemed to take the crowd’s energy with him.

Whether the individuals streaming out of the park — and out of other Bibi Ba stops across the country — rediscover that enthusiasm at the polls remains to be seen.

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