As Israel's Most Hateful Election Season Wraps Up, Netanyahu's Fearmongering Tactics Falter | Opinion

Prime Minister Netanyahu is busily implementing the final days of his campaign to remain in office. In Israel, the last 10 days of an election campaign are referred to as the "Money Time"—a feeling that has certainly been clear during the last 10 days. Netanyahu planned to make himself the center of the narrative during this period, and of course, more importantly, to try to control the narrative throughout the news cycle. He achieved the first, less so the second.

Netanyahu's campaign game plan has always operated on two parallel tracks—i.e. go high and also go low. Taking the high road, Netanyahu presents his prowess as a great world leader. He planned to travel to India to meet with his friend, Prime Minister Modi. However, that visit was called off. Instead, Netanyahu flew off last week for a hurried audience with embattled British Prime Minister Boris Johnson. This week, five days before the election, Netanyahu jetted to Sochi, Russia to meet Vladimir Putin, who kept him waiting for 2 hours and 45 minutes. It is unlikely that these meetings will have any impact on the Israeli electorate, but they are a time-tested part of the Netanyahu playbook.

Netanyahu generally holds off "going low" until the last day of the election — as he infamously did four years ago, when he released a video proclaiming: "the Arabs heading to the polls in droves." This was an effective, albeit racist campaign ploy, for which he later apologized. This time, Netanyahu began his fear campaign earlier than usual, with an attempt to pass a law that would allow Likud members to photograph anyone inside polling stations. And which polling stations did they want to photograph? Answer: The majority-Arab ones.

Currently, only the State election committee is permitted to photograph voters at the polls (the committee has planned expanded use of cameras in the upcoming election). Likud leaders repeatedly alleged that "the Arabs" would steal the election, unless the what came to be known as the Cameras Bill was passed. Unsubstantiated claims were made by Likud officials that Netanyahu was unable to form a coalition after the last elections due to voter fraud in Arab communities. (The only documented voter fraud in the Arab sector during the last election was actually on behalf of the Likud, and their allies, Shas—but facts are so old-fashioned in 2019.)

The bill was unanimously approved by Netanyahu's cabinet, despite the objections of the head of the elections committee, the legal advisor of the Knesset, and the Attorney General, who claimed the law would not legal. It was then roundly defeated, both in Knesset Committee and on the floor, when former Defense Minister (and one-time Netanyahu confidant) Avigdor Lieberman announced his opposition, declaring he would only favor a bill that gave the Election Committee sole authority to take photographs.

Accustomed to dominating if not outright controlling the narrative ahead of elections, Netanyahu is bedeviled by difficulties. There has been a slow drip of leaks from the police investigations regarding the corruption charges he is likely to face. In one especially damning release, Channel 13 presented testimony given by Miriam Adelson (mega-donor Sheldon Adelson's wife,) in which she claimed Sara Netanyahu controlled much of what happened in the government and made far too many decisions for her husband, especially on staffing and appointments. Miriam Adelson stated that in her professional medical opinion, Sara was "absolutely crazy." Adelson said that in addition to Sara's yelling and screaming at her personally, Sara proclaimed that if the Iranians got the bomb, it would be Adelson's fault, because the newspaper they had founded to help the Netanyahu's had not done enough for Israel's first family.

Netanyahu attempted to regain the narrative on Monday night, by holding a dramatic press conference on the Iranian nuclear program. Everyone waited for new revelations, but Netanyahu's proclamation was merely a rerun of information that had already been released and made little impression.

The following night, the Prime Minister announced he would make an important disclosure to the country. For much of the day, rumors spread regarding what that disclosure might be — would Netanyahu announce this would be his last term? Had Netanyahu received approval from the Trump administration to annex parts of the West Bank? It turned out to be just another political press conference, where Netanyahu announced his intent — if elected — to persuade the Trump Administration to support the Israeli annexation of the Jordan Valley and Israeli settlements.

Soon after Netanyahu's press conference, President Donald Trump tweeted he had fired his national security advisor, John Bolton. The word that the person most aligned with Netanyahu's worldview had been dismissed was not good news for the PM. Furthermore, reports soon began to emerge that one of the major reasons for firing Bolton was to make it easier to arrange a meeting between President Trump and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani—a literal nightmare for Netanyahu and the Israeli government.

And yet Netanyahu's evening still managed to get worse. A few hours later, as the prime minister spoke at an election rally in Israel's southern port of Ashdod, militants in the Gaza Strip fired a missile at the city. The PM was swiftly whisked off stage, all in plain view of the camera. Nothing better illustrated the failed Israeli policy concerning Gaza, or lack of any policy at all, than that moment.

By the next day, Netanyahu's Likud redoubled the fear campaign. The Facebook bots working overtime on the Prime Minister's page sent out the message: "A weak, secular, left government that depended on the Arab wish to annihilate us all—women, children and men—and will allow a nuclear Iran to eliminate us all." This post was so egregious that Facebook suspended the bot for 24 hours. Netanyahu claimed he had no prior knowledge about this post. However, the year before in an interview to Haaretz newspaper, Netanyahu clearly stated that nothing goes on his Facebook page without his approval.

After Facebook banned the bots, the Likud tried a new tack. Their new advertisement showed Azrieli Towers (one of the most iconic Tel Aviv landmarks) with a Palestinian flag, accompanied by text that read: "If you do not vote Likud, this is what will happen."

Will the fear-mongering work? Perhaps. Many Israelis continually vote by their fears, rather than their hopes. The final outcome will be determined by voter turnout. Will more Tel Avivans who opposed the current government come out this time? (They traditionally vote in lower numbers.) What will happen to the Arab-Israeli vote? (Last time, Arab vote was down, but there are signs the current campaign against them might have backfired and could cause Arab Israelis to come out in larger numbers.)

With four days left, there still might be some surprises. The Prime Minister's fate and the future of Israel will be determined by whether Tel Aviv liberals and Arab Israelis go to the polls or choose to stay home. Whatever the result, this election will be remembered as the most hateful campaign in Israel history, to date.

Marc Schulman is a multimedia historian.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.​​​​​