Sex Tapes, Iranian Hacks and Submarines: Israeli Election Tricks May Be Filthiest Yet | Opinion

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Israel's Prime Minster Benjamin Netanyahu attends the launch of the Likud party election campaign in Ramat Gan, Israel, on March 4. Amir Levy/Getty Images

There is nothing new about negative election campaigning, either in Israel or the rest of the world. However, this current campaign sets new records for being almost exclusively defamatory. Generally, it's the opposition that runs an explosive crusade attacking the government. But in Israel, in 2019, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been directing an abrasive, fulminating campaign against his rivals; crossing all boundaries, often playing hard and fast with the truth.

From the moment Benny Gantz announced he planned to run, the Likud party incessant messaging has been that Gantz and his three running mates (Moshe "Bogie" Yaalon, Gabi Ashkenazi and Yair Lapid) are all dangerous, weak leftists. The fact three of the leaders of Netanyahu's main opposition are former IDF chiefs of staff has not deterred the PM in the slightest. In tandem, Netanyahu and his emissaries continue to warn almost daily that Gantz's party "will without a doubt rely on the Arab Israeli parties to form a government."

Riad Kabha, Director of the Jewish Arab Center for Peace stated: "Netanyahu continues his tradition of incitement and delegitimization of Arabs in the state of Israel. During the last election, in 2015, he came out with saying, "The Arabs are galloping to the polling stations," this time, it's "Bibi or Tibi". Both slogans are aimed at the right-wing base who support him, designed to engender fear and hatred of Arabs, and as a result, incentivize his supporters to go out en masse and vote for the right-wing and the Likud. The statements and slogans of Prime Minister Netanyahu have not changed."

Kabha went on to say: "It is now time to discuss issues that matter to all Israelis, like education, transportation, and employment, and end this campaign of fear and hatred."

Then, last week a new storyline developed. A mysterious leak asserted Iranians had hacked Gantz's mobile phone, months ago. Stories rapidly spread across the net alleging the phone contained secret information, as well as sex videos — all of which Gantz quickly and definitively denied, also pointing out he was a private citizen at the time of the hacking. Netanyahu then sent a Facebook message to tens of thousands of Israelis asking whether they would trust someone to serve as Prime Minister, who could not safeguard his own phone — and who might be a target of Iranian blackmail.

Until now, Gantz's Blue & White Party has allowed Netanyahu to set the campaign agenda. However, during the last two days, Blue & White has also gone on the attack; hammering home that Netanyahu is corrupt. Yet, instead of concentrating on the three cases the Attorney General has stated he plans to indict Netanyahu, Blue & White focused on the fourth case, the one which police have as of yet failed to implicate Netanyahu directly.

That case, Case 3000, involves the decision to buy additional submarines from the German manufacturer Thyssenkrupp, despite the objections voiced by the Defense establishment, who maintained Israel did not need the subs; along with the parallel decision to cancel an international tender for the purchase of frigates, which included South Korea, the US, and an Israeli shipyard, so as to give the order on a no-bid basis to the same German company tagged to build the subs. The police have recommended that Netanyahu's cousin (who is also one of his lawyers), the head of Netanyahu's office, the deputy national security advisor, and the former commander of the navy all be indicted in this case for bribery, kickbacks and violating the public trust.

Last week, Netanyahu petitioned the committee that oversees public official's receipt of gifts and requested approval to receive a loan for his legal defense from his cousin. Netanyahu had already received $300,000 from that cousin, without receiving prior approval, claiming he did not know an approval was required. The committee castigated the Prime Minister, stating the committee had previously approved his receipt of a loan from his cousin to pay taxes on the sale of his stock in Sea Drift; stock he sold back to his cousin, in a sale that netted Netanyahu $4.5 million. It turns out that Sea Drift merged with Grafintec, one of the world's largest suppliers to ThyssenKrupp.

In a related revelation, it was reported this week that Netanyahu had personally approved the sale of a ThyssenKrupp manufactured, advanced submarine to Egypt, over the universal objection of Israel's Defense establishment. The fact that Netanyahu held stock in Sea Drift raised many questions, including — where the money to buy the stock come from? Or, for that matter, did Netanyahu ever pay for the shares?

Furthermore, Netanyahu held these shares when he was Finance Minister and at the beginning of his term as Prime Minister. He never disclosed that fact, nor did he put his holdings into a blind trust, as is required by Israeli law. In case 1000, Netanyahu also claimed he had merely received gifts from his cousin. But it turns out his cousin was his partner, and under Israeli law, any gifts received from one's partner would be subject to taxes.

On Monday night, at a press conference, the four leaders of Blue & White attacked Netanyahu on one subject and one subject alone the submarines

"Sitting before you are three Chiefs of Staff and a Security Cabinet member from whom it was hidden that the Prime Minister was receiving money — 16 million shekels — 16 million shekels that went into Netanyahu's pocket, from a company that was directly connected to the submarines, Gantz said. "It is a crisis of confidence in his leadership; it is a breach that cannot be repaired.

This week we found out that the Prime Minister approved the sale of advanced submarines to Egypt, behind the backs of the security establishment and without any of the relevant authorities knowing. Netanyahu denied it. He lied. This does serious damage to the public's trust in the security establishment."

The earlier corruption charges have not diminished support for Netanyahu. He has successfully convinced enough of the Israeli public that the cases against him are only about a few boxes of cigars and bottles of champagne, along with soliciting of a few nice articles written about him — i.e. "no real harm." This is different. Case 3000 is about real money and real decisions that impact Israel's security.

On Tuesday night, in a twist worthy of a movie plot, the main state's witness in Case 3000, Miki Ganor, who served as representative for ThyssenKrupp in Israel for ten years, announced he recants his prior testimony; testimony which he alleged he had been pressured into giving. As the state has other supporting evidence in the case, Ganor's earlier testimony can be used. However, this new development has certainly added to the drama surrounding this allegation of criminal activity.

On Wednesday, Netanyahu gave a special press briefing in response to attacks against him, during which he said there was nothing new in Gantz's attack on him regarding the submarines. According to Netanyahu, it was all done to draw attention away from Gantz's phone, which was supposedly hacked by the Iranians six months ago. He spent five full minutes claiming Gantz could be blackmailed by the Iranians as a result (a possibility Gantz has repeatedly and categorically denied).

Many call Netanyahu "The Magician". If he succeeds in deflecting all of the corruption charges alleged against him by continually talking about hypothetical, issues with Gantz's cell phone, the title will indeed be well earned.

Marc Schulman is a multimedia historian.

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

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