Republican strategists strengthen Netanyahu’s grip on Israeli politics

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu first stormed into power a quarter of a century ago and has since reshaped Israeli policy with the help of Republican strategists from the United States. Israel’s longest-serving leader is seeking a sixth record term in Tuesday’s election, the fourth in just two years.

When the Israelis voted in the election, Netanyahu was dropped to lose in March 2015, the incumbent Prime Minister released a video day for election day aimed at drumming up support among his traditionally loyal base.

“Arab voters are on their way to the polls en masse,” Netanyahu warned, trying to intimidate his religious and nationalist base into a mass.

Netanyahu won that election and confused most predictions of a narrow defeat. He would repeat the stunt four years later, this time before a new general election, in which he appeared alongside US President Donald Trump’s poll John McLaughlin to warn of an impending “left” takeover.

“Mr Prime Minister, right now we are losing the race,” McLaughlin told Netanyahu in a video message aimed at worrying about supporters of his Likud party and its allies on the right.

Netanyahu publishes his reviewer John McClocklin to get the Likudniks out of the house pic.twitter.com/vKDplcAG4L

– Fellow Amit Segal (@amit_segal) April 8, 2019

Once again, the defeat predicted for Netanyahu failed. A referendum in April 2019 in which he faced challenger Benny Gantz and his blue-and-white party instead launched a cycle of incomplete elections and besieged attempts at a unity government, sending Israeli voters back to the polls Tuesday for the fourth time in two years. .

Another referendum on “Bibi”

McLaughlin’s partnership with Netanyahu, which began before the 2015 vote, fits into a long history of partnerships between Republican strategists and the US-trained Israeli prime minister. These bands go back to Netanyahu’s very first election victory – the 1996 outraged masterminded by Arthur Finkelstein, an influential conservative consultant who worked for former US presidents Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan.

“Netanyahu proved to be a good student and learned all the best tactics from the many consultants he worked with,” said Dahlia Scheindlein, an opinion poll and political adviser who has worked on several Israeli campaigns.

“He’s very good at dominating the media, he knows how to generate headline news,” she tells FRANCE 24.

“It’s a classic characteristic of populists – and he’s very good at it.”

Much has been said about the enduring appeal of “Bibi”, his natural charisma and his baritone voice. Over the years, none of his rivals have managed to match his relentless campaign or his ability to absorb media attention.

While campaign issues and alliances have shifted during the country’s recent two-year political uprising, Tuesday’s contest is once again portrayed as a referendum on Netanyahu – a story that has dominated recent elections and underscores the extent to which Israel’s longest-serving prime minister has personified the country’s policies.

“It is a referendum [on Netanyahu’s leadership] because he is the reason we have this election in the first place, says Scheindlein, referring to the Prime Minister’s decision to construct the collapse of the power-sharing agreement he agreed last year with centristival Gantz.

“It is also seen as a referendum because Netanyahu has become a symbol of the many burning issues that divide Israel today,” she said – from the steady religious encroachment on public life, advocated by his ultra-Orthodox allies, to his own attacks on independence. the judiciary.

Protected banners

But this time, Israel’s five-year-old prime minister, who has been in power since 2009, is up for re-election while facing charges of corruption. Critics say his main aim is to secure enough support in parliament to ensure that MPs grant him immunity from prosecution. However, his still loyal supporters say that the accusations against “King Bibi” are politically motivated.

While Gantz is now largely gone, Netanyahu is facing fierce opposition from rival nationalist parties. He stumbles upon the success of the country’s Covid-19 vaccination campaign and the normalization is about four Arab states organized by the Trump administration.

The former US president, with whom Netanyahu had formed a close bond, has been significantly absent from the latest campaign. Gone are the giant signs on highways and high-rise buildings that show the two men together, a fixture of Israel’s latest election. But Trump’s legacy continues to shape Israeli policy, especially in the prime minister’s camp.

Last year, Netanyahu hired and soon fired two former Trump campaign aides, Corey Lewandowski and David Bossie, who had been brought in to advise on the Likud campaign. He also tapped Aaron Klein, a protégé of Trump’s former chief strategist Steve Bannon who quickly became an influential member of the prime minister’s inner circle and whom some Israeli media called the “Bibi Whisperer.”

Klein, former head of Jerusalem’s bureau for Bannon’s right-wing media outlet Breitbart, has authored several books on former US President Barack Obama, including “Manchuria’s President: Barack Obama’s Ties to Communists, Socialists and Other Anti-American Extremists.” After Trump’s 2016 election, Bannon Klein credited for hatching a plan to destabilize Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton during a presidential debate by inviting women who accused her husband – former President Bill Clinton – of sexual abuse.

In November 2019, when Netanyahu’s legal problems worsened, Axio’s news website said that Klein had voluntarily helped the Prime Minister fight his corruption allegations. Months later, Netanyahu publicly thanked Klein, then his chief strategist, for his “smart” advice ahead of Israel’s 2020 election. He promoted him to campaign manager for the 2021 vote.

The battle of the American consultants

Netanyahu is not the only Israeli politician who has used American strategists. One of his main rivals on the right, Likud’s former heavyweight Gideon Saar, briefly recruited consultants from the Lincoln group of anti-Trump Republicans – in what some described as an Israeli extension of the GOP rivalry.

Another key challenger from the right, Naftali Bennett, has hired Netanyahu’s former chief of staff George Birnbaum, while a Democratic strategist advises the main centrist candidate, Yair Lapid.

“The battle between the American consultants has been going on for a long time,” said Scheindlein, who was part of the team of Democrats who helped counter Finkelstein in Israel’s emergency election in 1999, in which Labor defeated Ehud Barak.

More than two decades later, Scheindlein claims that negative campaigning and demonization of the left are still hallmarks of Netanyahu’s election tactics.

“This time he makes Yair Lapid the great enemy and stamps him on the left. But he has done much more negative campaigns in the past, such as linking the left to ISIS (Islamic State Group) in 2015, she says. “Negative campaign is part of who he is.”

Ange ‘Abu Yair’

Gideon Rahat, a professor of political science at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and a member of the Israel Democracy Institute, sees negative campaigning and personality politics as two “very American” things that Netanyahu has helped introduce into Israel’s parliamentary parliamentary party. the system.

However, he notes that an increasingly fragmented political landscape and the emergence of challengers on Netanyahu’s right have made it very difficult for the Prime Minister to use the kind of tactics he used against Gantz.

“It is very easy to target an opponent but very difficult to use the same strategy when attacked from the center and right,” Rahat explains in an interview with FRANCE 24.

Rahat says Netanyahu’s attempts to hold on to power and ward off prosecution have at the same time pushed him further into Trump-style populist terrain, “first aimed at the media, then prosecutors, then courts.” He has also been forced to look for new supporters in the most unlikely places.

Six years after his infamous comments that the Arabs voted “in droves”, Netanyahu has made an unparalleled effort to provide Arab Israelis with campaign in areas he used to avoid and embrace the nickname “Abu Yair” (father of Yair), according to the Arab seden. to refer to parents as the father or mother of their eldest son.

Arabs make up just over one-fifth of the Israeli population, a marginalized constituency that could help break the country’s long-standing political stalemate. Only 2 percent voted for Netanyahu’s Likud in the last election. But if he succeeds in winning over a larger share – even if he cultivates right-wing extremist parties that advocate the expulsion of Arabs – it would certainly support his reputation as the magician and master’s manipulator of Israeli politics.

“He can wear a galabiya (tunic) and call himself Abu Yair from now until the election,” Ahmed Tibi, a leader of the joint list coalition of Israel’s Arab parties, told The Economist last week.

“He who believes in him deserves him.”