Israeli voters should be considering the issues and debating who is best equipped to lead a nation confronted by extraordinary military, diplomatic, social and religious challenges. Yet what we are witnessing today is probably the most vulgar and demeaning campaign in the country’s history, in which the vast majority of politicians have descended to the lowest levels. The bulk of the media has heightened this by excessively exaggerating, personalizing, distorting and sensationalizing the issues.
Topping the charts for vulgarity has been the obsessive and primitive attacks designed to discredit Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu by portraying his wife as a resurrected witch from Salem. This was spearheaded by Meni Naftali, a disgruntled employee who is obviously being promoted by those engaged in the “anyone but Bibi” campaign. His allegations of “abuse” include claims that Sara Netanyahu reprimanded him over issues such as providing milk in a bag instead of a carton.
The latest accusation of “Bottlegate” alleged that Sara Netanyahu was “stealing” 1,000 shekels a year worth of bottle refunds, despite the fact that this was clearly a bureaucratic oversight rectified at her own initiative two years ago. Can anyone seriously visualize the Netanyahu family planning to augment their income by an extra 20 shekels a week from bottle refunds? Yet the sickening media obsession with this issue was infinitely more passionate than the shocking Yisrael Beytenu corruption charges.
The Prime Minister’s Office has also been accused of buying too much ice cream and even worse, purchasing higher quality ice cream. And the latest act of purported extravagance was the consumption of a bottle of wine a day, which was dubbed excessive. We have also had Bibitours allegations of accepting disproportionate hospitality on a visit to the U.K. 10 years ago, which had previously been raised and dismissed.
It is inconceivable that any other Western prime minister and his wife would be subjected to such a defamatory campaign. None of these bizarre accusations would reach the media in another country, much less serve as the main headlines of a number of newspapers day after day.
It clearly represents a concerted conspiracy to divert debate from the real issues and seeks to depict Netanyahu as corrupt and avaricious. The worst feature of this vulgarity is that two newspapers have transformed these nonissues into screaming front-page headlines. Haaretz has a clear political agenda but one would have expected it to concentrate on genuine issues rather than seeking to exploit the lowest forms of populism by stooping to petty character assassination against a candidate and his wife.
But the worst is Yedioth Ahronoth. Publisher Noni Mozes has demonstrated that he lacks any semblance of moral compass. He has a venomous histrionic hatred of Netanyahu, exacerbated because the prime minister is supported by Mozes’ principal competitor, Israel Hayom. Mozes has directed his employees to demonize Netanyahu, transforming his front page into a gutter press with ad hominem attack placards against Netanyahu and his wife. Yet the very same paper was shamelessly promoting Ehud Olmert as a future prime minister even after he was formally convicted in court. Yedioth’s behavior is a disgrace to the entire Israel media.
The character assassination is being replicated by most of the political parties as standard electioneering tactics.
But even worse is the effort to gain votes by seeking to discredit Netanyahu even when this conflicts with the national interest and undermines Israel’s global position.
This has been the constant refrain of Isaac Herzog, Tzipi Livni and Yair Lapid, who have blamed Netanyahu rather than PA President Mahmoud Abbas for the breakdown in negotiations with the Palestinians. They have of course not proposed an alternative approach to the intransigent and duplicitous Palestinian leaders.
Likewise, they have condemned Netanyahu rather than U.S. President Barack Obama for the toxic relationship that prevails between them. They have not said that they would accept Obama’s call for adopting the indefensible borders based on the 1949 armistice lines or accept U.S. demands to freeze construction in the Jewish neighborhoods of east Jerusalem on the grounds that these constitute settlements.
Their crass and cynical attacks on Netanyahu’s visit to France were appalling.
But the most irresponsible act was their hysterical condemnation of Netanyahu for having agreed to address Congress to alert the world of the tremendous dangers inherent in enabling Iran to become a nuclear state. Most Israeli politicians across the political spectrum are cognizant of the fact that Obama and most Western countries are desperate to make a deal with the Iranians, virtually capitulating to their major demands. While a nuclear Iran would pose a nightmarish threat extending ultimately to the entire world, for Israel, a nuclear Iran — which is today openly calling for its annihilation — represents an existential threat.
Under such circumstances, it was utterly irresponsible to accuse Netanyahu of insulting Obama for electoral benefit, and thus justifying the outrageous responses from the Obama administration. It also provides credence to those seeking to exploit Netanyahu’s address to Congress as a means to weaken the bipartisan climate which is of enormous importance to retaining the strong U.S.-Israel relationship.
There are other bizarre aspects to the election. It is almost comical to observe Lapid, head of Yesh Atid, continuously, unashamedly condemning the government — in which he was finance minister — for having failed to confront and reform social and economic anomalies.
Avigdor Lieberman’s party, Yisrael Beytenu, has been on a downward spiral since the exposure of the extent of corruption at senior levels. He has been zigzagging, issuing alternating hawkish sound bites followed by dovish ones. During the flare-up with Hezbollah at the Syrian border, despite being foreign minister, he highlighted the dysfunctionality of his own government by condemning it for not being tough enough in its response. Realizing that his dovish outbursts have undermined his core supporters, he has now proclaimed that he would never join a left-wing government, in stark contradiction to what he had been saying a few weeks ago.
Likud as the governing party has been less on the offensive and has sought to debate issues rather than personalities. But it has accused Herzog and Livni of being behind Victory 2015 (V15), a group heavily engaged in lobbying for them, and raising of millions of dollars from abroad, including foreign governments, in contravention of election finance laws. They note that Herzog’s illegal fundraising for Ehud Barak had been a scandalous fraud but was quietly shelved in 1999 after Herzog invoked his right of silence to deter any investigation. Ironically, Livni, who at the time was a member of Likud, led the charge against Herzog in 1999. But then again, Livni who is at the forefront of the “Bottlegate” brouhaha, was still willing to run with Olmert in the last election after he had been criminally convicted.
Naftali Bennett, head of Habayit Hayehudi, who was until recently riding a crest of popularity, shot himself in the foot by autocratically selecting Eli Ohana, a secular former football star with no serious credentials, outraging all his party colleagues. When some of his inner circle accused him of engaging in low-level populism and betraying the ideals of his party, threatening to leave the party, he was forced to back down.
What is needed in lieu of character assassination and crass populist demagoguery are basic facts to enable the public to assess and vote on the basis of which party can best deal with the following crucial challenges. They should ask themselves:
- Who can best handle the confronting military and security issues?
- Who is best able to turn the current anti-Israeli global tide without making concessions that will undermine our security?
- Who is best equipped to bring about sorely needed social and economic reforms that will enhance the quality of life for most Israelis?
- Who is best able to resolve the issues of religion and state as well as be strong enough to resist haredi pressure and bring about changes that will peacefully engage more haredim in the workforce and ensure that they share the national burden?
Most Israelis have misgivings concerning the composition of the party lists they will be supporting. Yet in our system, the prime minister will be assuming the key policymaking role. The most important question is whether it is Netanyahu or Herzog/Livni who is the most capable to lead our nation over the next challenging years.
One can only hope that despite the shameful media sensationalism, it is the serious issues — not the slanders about bottle refunds or ice cream — that will determine how Israelis vote.
Isi Leibler may be contacted at email@example.com.
This column was originally published in the Jerusalem Post and Israel Hayom