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The battle for the Israeli premiership has left morality behind

Copies of ballots papers and campaign posters for Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud Party lie on the ground in the aftermath of the country's parliamentary elections, early on 18 March, 2015 in Tel Aviv [AFP PHOTO/JACK GUEZ/Getty]
Copies of ballots papers and campaign posters for Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud Party lie on the ground in the aftermath of the country's parliamentary elections, early on 18 March, 2015 in Tel Aviv [AFP PHOTO/JACK GUEZ/Getty]

Last Thursday, Israelis living abroad started to cast their votes to choose the make-up of the 22nd Israeli parliament, the Knesset. The General Election is slated to take place on 17 September.

The Likud, led by incumbent Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and Blue and White alliance, led by former Chief of Staff Benny Gantz, each won 35 seats in April’s election, but the Likud leader was tasked with forming the government. Netanyahu has failed to put together a viable coalition, even amongst those to the right of his own party. This pushed the Knesset to dissolve itself and trigger a new election in order to prevent Gantz from becoming prime minister-designate.

To achieve a comfortable majority, of course, Netanyahu and his colleagues need votes, which requires politicians to persuade the electorate that they are the best people for the job. Like others before him, Netanyahu has often abandoned his right-wing principles to achieve his electoral goals, as have the leaders of other parties. It was Netanyahu, though, who is the most prominent in this immoral battle; he is described by writer Lily Galili as, “The best campaigner in Israeli politics.”

Attack on mass media

According to Haaretz journalist Anshel Pfeffer, “The [current] polls are static and no major issue seems to be motivating voters. It’s a phony election, devoid of nearly all passion.” That didn’t stop Netanyahu from dragging the voters’ focus onto himself when he played the role of the victim regarding leaks on Israeli TV Channel 12 relating to the ongoing corruption cases against him.

Over the past week, Channel 12’s legal reporter, Guy Peleg, has aired excerpts from one of the graft cases against Netanyahu. The Prime Minister tried to divert attention from this by accusing the channel of broadcasting anti-Semitic propaganda aimed at defaming him ahead of the General Election. “The propaganda Channel 12,” he wrote on Facebook, “has produced an anti-Semitic series called ‘Our Boys’ that is distributed internationally and besmirches the good name of Israel.” He labelled the programme “Fake News”.

In doing so, Netanyahu sought to appeal to the nationalism of Israeli voters in order to persuade them that he does not care about himself and his own interests, but cares very much about anything that “besmirches the good name of Israel”. He also seized the opportunity to hint that the corruption cases against him are not real and a result of blackmail by the mass media. “I am not surprised that Channel 12 slanders Israel, I am used to them blackmailing me on a daily basis,” he claimed.

In the face of Israel’s freedom of speech laws, the Likud and autocratic Netanyahu sent a letter to the Central Elections Committee, requesting a ban on news outlets from publishing leaked material relating to the investigations ahead of the upcoming election. The request was rejected.

After almost losing, Benjamin Netanyahu comes 1st in 2019 Israeli election - Cartoon [Sabaaneh/MiddleEastMonitor]

After almost losing, Benjamin Netanyahu comes 1st in 2019 Israeli election – Cartoon [Sabaaneh/MiddleEastMonitor]

Russian voters

Away from his attack on the mass media, Netanyahu is appealing to Russian Jews for their votes. About one million Jews migrated to Israel from the countries of the former Soviet Union in the early 1990s after the US closed its doors to them under pressure from activists who wanted to boost Israel’s population. Their votes are crucial to every candidate for the premiership in Israel, including Netanyahu’s rival, the head of Yisrael Beiteinu party, Avigdor Lieberman, who comes from Moldova. Many of these immigrants say that they feel like second-class citizens in Israel.

Putting morality to one side, Netanyahu has paid a visit to Ukraine, from where the majority of the former Soviet Israelis come, and met with President Volodymyr Zelensky in Kyiv. It is well-known that Zelensky is opposed to Russian President Vladimir Putin, but that did not stop Netanyahu from visiting him after posting massive billboard images of him shaking hands with Putin in a bid, said Haaretz, to “hold the stick at both ends,” a tactic that is “unlikely to have impressed many.” This, added the Israeli newspaper, “was a demonstration of how Netanyahu is leaving no stone unturned” to attract the Russian vote.

Immigrants from the Ukraine were outraged and offended by Putin being used in Netanyahu’s campaign. Speaking to Middle East Eye, a journalist who left Russia when Putin was re-elected president seven years ago, explained: “I ran away from Putin knowing where his Russia was heading… Netanyahu-Putin posters make me feel Putin is after me in Israel as well.”

Palestinian rights

Away from domestic issues inside Israel, almost all of the General Election candidates count on undermining the rights of the Palestinians and harassing them in order to get electoral support. This applies to those from the right, left or centre of Israeli politics. Netanyahu, for example, has made several pledges recently to annex the occupied Palestinian West Bank and carry out a massive military offensive against the Gaza Strip.

Last Sunday, the Israeli leaders attended a ceremony for the beginning of the new school year in an illegal Jewish settlement in the occupied West Bank. Appealing to the extremist Jewish settlers, he renewed his pledge to annex the settlements. He also said that he will extend Israel’s sovereignty over the whole of the occupied territory. This, said the Washington Post, was Netanyahu “reaching out to fragmented right-wing voters.”

Recognising that the lack of any desire on his part to attack Gaza might cost him thousands of votes in communities in southern Israel, Netanyahu opted to pledge that he will send the so-called Israel Defence Forces into the enclave yet again to carry out a “widescale operation” against its de facto government. “We are preparing for a widescale operation that will strike a blow against Hamas and the Islamic Jihad, a military strike that they have never suffered before,” he insisted. “I can’t give details but this is not just talk. We want calm; we are preparing for a [military] campaign.”

He is not alone in making such a pledge; all the other Israeli leaders are using the same claim that they want “calm” and in order to get it they will create chaos of the Palestinians. Any sense of morality in all of this has long since disappeared. If more Palestinian lives have to be destroyed in order to get elected, then these politicians will promise to do so.

Not everyone is taken in by the rhetoric, however. Describing Netanyahu’s attack on the Israeli mass media and his battle for the premiership, Israeli writer Nahum Barnea told Ynet News: Unfortunately, Netanyahu refuses to learn. He believes that everything is permitted, that whatever he does will be forgiven.”

On past evidence, Barnea is probably right. It will, therefore, be interesting to see if Netanyahu’s past alleged misdemeanours catch up with him this time round, or if he will indeed persuade enough voters that he deserves to continue as Israel’s longest-serving Prime Minister. In the meantime, the battle for the Israeli premiership has left morality behind.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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