Netanyahu knows he’s no victim of election fraud. So why peddle the claim?

There’s more to the opposition leader’s rejection of the new government’s legitimacy than Trumpian denial. Victimhood, he well knows, has its uses

Haviv Rettig Gur

Haviv Rettig Gur is The Times of Israel's senior analyst.

Opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu leads a meeting of right-wing parties in the Knesset on June 14, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu leads a meeting of right-wing parties in the Knesset on June 14, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

“What happened in Washington could happen in Israel too, and here it could be even worse,” read the op-ed headline on the Walla news site on January 7, the day after the storming of the Capitol in Washington by protesters angry at Donald Trump’s election loss.

Baruch Kra, the author, is an influential legal analyst for Channel 13 news and an outspoken critic of Netanyahu.

He wasn’t subtle.

“With the exception of their handling of the coronavirus crisis,” he wrote, “the Trump and Netanyahu administrations have acted over the past term like Siamese twins in all things — in their views on the rule of law, their hatred of the ‘deep state,’ their wild incitement against anyone not of their camp, their wild incitement against the free press, the spreading of disgusting conspiracy theories on social media, and the complete shattering of the principle that one tells the truth.”

Kra was channeling what has become a broadly shared view among the half of the Israeli electorate that has sought Netanyahu’s ouster over the last four elections — that Israel’s longest-serving prime minister has spurred a deterioration in Israel’s political culture and democratic institutions, centralized power around himself and begun to characterize any opposition to his continued rule as illegitimate.

The Trumpian raid that never happened

It must be said: Likud has done a great deal in recent months to buttress that narrative.

Israel’s outgoing prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during a Knesset session in Jerusalem, Sunday, June 13, 2021. (AP Photo/Ariel Schali22

Over the past two weeks, as he ran out of political maneuvers to prevent his ouster, Netanyahu, with distinctly Trumpian overtones, began accusing his political rivals of carrying out “the greatest election fraud in the history of the country, and in my opinion, the history of democracies.”

It was only the latest in a long stream of such rhetoric. Back in October, Netanyahu loyalist MK Miki Zohar gave a radio interview in which he flatly threatened Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit that allegedly incriminating recordings would be made public if he didn’t stop hounding the prime minister.

It was a cartoonishly cinematic rant that seemed drawn from the pages of a Sopranos script, as when he added darkly, “I think if people don’t internalize — those, of course, who initiated this whole conspiracy against the prime minister — that it’d be better for them if they pulled back from this bad path they have chosen, or they will have to pay a price.”

When reporters pointed out that he’d just appeared to publicly threaten and apparently extort the nation’s top law enforcement officer, a startled Zohar quickly backtracked, clarifying that he did not actually know of or possess any incriminating recordings. It was all bluster. He seemed to have gotten a little carried away, as one gets, in his enthusiasm to demonstrate his loyalty to Netanyahu.

If Zohar’s interview wasn’t evidence of a criminal conspiracy against the attorney general, critics said at the time, then it was at least evidence of the degradation of Israel’s political culture and the sycophantic leadership culture that had emerged within the ruling party.

Opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu, center, and Likud MKs Yariv Levin, left, and Miki Zohar, right, at a meeting of right-wing parties in the Knesset on June 14, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

It wasn’t just one such incident, but a seemingly endless stream of them, such as the time, scarcely 24 hours after the March 23 election, when Netanyahu’s son Yair tweeted to Likud’s activist base that “the forgery” of the vote count “has begun.” The cry was quickly taken up in Likud social media and WhatsApp groups.

Or the news before the March election that the Knesset Guard had begun training for a possible assault on the parliament complex by angry protesters. And on and on it went.

Was Kra right? Netanyahu’s Trump-esque talk of “the greatest election fraud…in the history of democracies,” his son’s insistence on the day after the election that the vote count was being “forged,” his surrogates accusing prosecutors of a “conspiracy” and publicly threatening to reveal incriminating evidence against the attorney general if he didn’t toe the line — Likud often seems eager to make Kra’s case for him.

In the end, of course, Kra turned out to be wrong about the danger to the Knesset. No rush on the parliament complex ever materialized, neither in the wake of the vote count in March and not this week, when Netanyahu was actually ousted from power.

On June 10, after Netanyahu’s speech about “the greatest election fraud” raised eyebrows abroad, Likud issued an English-language statement clarifying that Netanyahu was committed to “a peaceful transition of power.”

(From left) Benny Gantz, Yair Lapid, Naftali Bennett, Gideon Sa’ar and Merav Michaeli sit together after their new coalition wins Knesset approval, June 13, 2021. (Haim Zach/GPO)

And as he showed three days later, he was.

What he means by ‘election fraud’

Netanyahu is not Trump. He does not, as Trump appears to, make decisions from the gut. He’s a famously careful and calculating man who deliberates and studies a problem at great length before taking action.

So when he appears to behave like Trump or to make claims that sound like Trumpian claims, the explanation isn’t emotional.

His substantive argument about “election fraud” is far more reasonable than Trump’s. He does not claim that millions of votes were forged, but that Naftali Bennett has violated the deepest rules of the democratic game by taking the premiership despite leading a mere six-seat party, only the eighth-largest in the new Knesset, and in direct violation of one of Bennett’s central campaign promises.

Outgoing prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, shakes hands with the newly-inducted Prime Minister Naftali Bennett at the Knesset on June 13, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

For Netanyahu, who helms a 30-seat faction and an ideologically cohesive alliance of parties, Bennett’s ruling party and motley coalition are genuinely — and not unreasonably — galling.

It’s happened before

But Netanyahu is nevertheless mistaken. The appointment of a prime minister from a small party does not, in actual fact, constitute the “greatest election fraud…in the history of democracies.” It’s not even unique among democracies in the present day.

Alexander De Croo, the current prime minister of Belgium, leads a party with just 12 seats in the country’s 150-seat parliament. Latvia’s Prime Minister Arturs Krisjanis Karins leads only the seventh-largest party in his country’s parliament — seventh out of seven.

That shouldn’t surprise. As with Bennett, both De Croo and Karins were handed the premiership as a result of a political deadlock between larger parties.

Yamina party leader Naftali Bennett arrives at a polling station to cast his vote during the elections, in Ra’anana on March 23, 2021. (Gili Yaari/Flash90)

As for Bennett’s violation of campaign promises, that’s a moral calculus best left to the warring parties themselves to sort out. Bennett did indeed solemnly vow on national television not to sit with Yair Lapid, “not even in rotation.” Then again, Netanyahu once vowed on national television to annex the Jordan Valley, to legalize surrogacy for gay couples and to topple the Hamas regime in Gaza. More to the point, Netanyahu was less worried about the ethics of Benny Gantz violating his central election promise in the 2020 election: namely, that he won’t join a Netanyahu-led government.

When one asks voters which violations are the more ethically troubling, the answers tend to correspond neatly with preexisting views about the candidates. Bennett’s own voters divide roughly in half on the question, with equal parts supporting and opposing his decision to go with Lapid.

It’s wholly reasonable to argue that as a matter of principle a small party shouldn’t hold the premiership, or that politicians should keep the promises they make on the campaign trail. But failing to do so does not represent, as Netanyahu insists, “the greatest election fraud” in the annals of democracy.

The usefulness of victimhood

Why, then, the overheated rhetoric?

Why did Netanyahu, at an opposition meeting in the Knesset on Monday, accuse the new government of being founded on “fraud, hate and lust for power,” and insist it was the opposition’s duty to “rescue the people and country of Israel” from its clutches?

Then-prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, front, and then-health minister Yuli Edelstein, left, attend a ceremony honoring medical workers and hospitals for their fight against the COVID-19 pandemic, in Jerusalem on June 6, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Why is the ever-calculating Netanyahu constructing an emotionally charged narrative that claims Israeli voters were defrauded?

After clarifying the vast gulf that separates Netanyahu and Trump, the answer may nevertheless lie in Trump’s example.

It’s hard to tell whether Donald Trump really believes that millions of votes were fabricated in last year’s American election, but the claim has been a useful one for him. In ordinary circumstances, when a candidate loses an election, his or her political party naturally moves on to another candidate. But if that loss was the result of the opponent’s fabrication of election results, as Trump claims, it becomes very difficult to move on. Those who call to jettison the victim of the deception become collaborators.

By clinging fiercely to his claim of a stolen election, Trump has trapped the Republican Party in his orbit and prevented it from moving on.

US President Donald Trump speaks to a crowd before boarding Air Force One at Andrews Air Force Base, Md., January 20, 2021. (AP Photo/Luis M. Alvarez, File)

Keeping friends close

Netanyahu’s insistence that the new government is an illegitimate result of undemocratic “fraud” is not a statement about the past, but about the future.

Netanyahu is worried. Several Likud leadership hopefuls are eager to see his exit so they can compete for his position. MK Nir Barkat pointed out in an interview last weekend that had Netanyahu stepped aside at any point since the March election, the new government would not have been established and Likud would have remained the ruling party.

It was an unusually frank criticism of the party leader from within the ranks that led to Barkat being summoned to a meeting with Netanyahu on Monday in order to clear the air. Barkat emerged from the meeting a full-throated supporter of Netanyahu’s continued leadership of Likud. The brief threat was neutralized.

But the very fact that Barkat felt able to put a toe out of line points to a growing desire for change within the party’s upper ranks. Others in Likud, including Yuli Edelstein, Israel Katz and David Bitan, have also begun to quietly question Netanyahu’s continued leadership after his failure to win an outright victory in four consecutive elections.

Haredi party leaders Aryeh Deri of Shas, center, and Yaakov Litzman, left, and Moshe Gafni of United Torah Judaism, at a press conference at the Knesset in Jerusalem, May 6, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Then there are the Haredi parties Shas and United Torah Judaism, who have loudly proclaimed their loyalty to Netanyahu and criticized the new government in unusually caustic terms.

As Netanyahu knows, the volume of the Haredi politicians’ declarations of fealty conceals a real and profound predicament. Over a billion shekels in state funding goes each year to Haredi yeshivas and educational charities, well over half a billion to Shas’s separate school system and hundreds of millions more to welfare grants for yeshiva students, “Jewish culture” budgets disbursed by Haredi officials, and other revenue streams on which the community depends.

Those budgets could be cut steeply if the new government doesn’t re-approve them. At least a third of the yeshivas’ funding is up for approval in the coming months. Ensuring that funding, and ensuring it grows each year as the Haredi population grows, is the primary function of the Haredi parties — a function they cannot fulfill from the opposition.

Lapid and Bennett have done their best to drive home the point. This week, they handed the two posts most vital to dispersing those funds, the finance minister’s seat and the chairmanship of the Knesset Finance Committee, to Avigdor Liberman’s Yisrael Beytenu party, the most anti-Haredi party in Israeli politics. Liberman is likely to wreak havoc with Haredi funding; his secularist, Russian-speaking constituency, long tormented by the Haredi-controlled state rabbinate and other religious institutions, is the part of the Israeli electorate most eager to see those budgets cut.

How long can the Haredi parties last outside of government? Or as the Haredi parties themselves frame the question, will the narrow and divided Bennett-Lapid coalition last long enough to force their hand?

Opposition leader MK Benjamin Netanyahu leads a meeting of the opposition parties in the Knesset on June 14, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Netanyahu is out of power for the first time in 12 years. That makes him vulnerable. His insistence that the new government is an illegitimate fraud is intended to make it harder for Likud hopefuls to challenge him or Haredi allies to abandon him. It won’t work for long, but it may work for long enough to see the new coalition fall apart from its own internal tensions.

At his Monday meeting with fellow opposition parties, Opposition Leader Netanyahu made the case bluntly.

The new government can be brought down, he promised. But only “if we act together, with iron discipline.” He came back to the point again and again. “If we squabble,” he said, “we won’t achieve that.” And later, “If we work toward that goal, we will succeed, but if we clash with each other we won’t.”

Anything else, after all, would be a surrender to “the greatest election fraud…in the history of democracies.”

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