(February 5, 2019 / JNS) It’s not a hot news flash that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is the nemesis of the local left-wing media. Nor is it novel that the feeling is mutual. But ahead of Tuesday’s primaries in Likud, the party Netanyahu chairs, an amusing twist was added to the mix.
Unlike the vast majority of Israeli parties, Likud determines its Knesset list democratically through internal elections in which all dues-paying members are eligible to vote. This means that Netanyahu needs to campaign for the candidates of his choice, rather than simply appointing them at will, the way other party leaders do. Naturally, he has loyalists and rivals within his party. Obviously, he favors the former.
No scandal there. Unless, of course, you’re an Israeli journalist who needs to create one as part of your proverbial putsch attempt.
Whatever else can be said of Netanyahu, he is no dummy, as even his enemies acknowledge. To circumvent the incessant negative coverage aimed at ousting him through ludicrous criminal charges—ironically involving moves on his part to be given a fair shake by the press—Netanyahu launched an Internet channel, Likud TV, for the purpose of broadcasting his message and garnering public support ahead of the April 9 elections. To mock the endeavor, the Israeli media called it a “copycat” version of U.S. President Donald Trump’s weekly “Real News Update.”
To add to the ridicule, the press made a mountain out of the molehill that constituted the first episode of the webcast, which aired on Sunday night. During the broadcast, Netanyahu went after former Likud minister Gideon Sa’ar, a contender in the Likud Party primaries. Reiterating an Israel Hayom report from October that Sa’ar was plotting with Israeli President Reuven Rivlin to prevent Netanyahu from serving another term as prime minister, Netanyahu recounted: “More than two or three people in the Likud [told] me, ‘Gideon came to me and said look, this is what I’m planning. After the elections, they won’t appoint Netanyahu to form the government, because he’s in a [pre-indictment] hearing, so the responsibility has to go to someone else in the Likud, and I ask for your support.’ ”
Sa’ar denied the report when it first came out and responded to Netanyahu’s renewed accusation by saying, “Unfortunately, two days before the primaries, the prime minister chose to recycle the false tale he first told several months ago. The goal is transparent: to hurt me in the primaries. Likud members are smart and know that this is baseless. On the eve of a critical election for the Likud and the country, I will behave like a responsible adult: I will not be dragged into an internal war in our home.”
Sa’ar may or may not be telling the truth, but Netanyahu’s claim that certain Likud members said that Sa’ar was colluding against him is perfectly plausible. Such is the often dirty world of politics, particularly during election season.
Which brings us back to the media’s funny frenzy in the lead-up to the Likud primaries.
Most Israeli news outlets are openly opposed to the platform and politicians of Likud—not only Netanyahu. As a result, the country’s journalists are not rooting for any particular type of Likud list; they simply want a government headed by a different party—one with a more left-wing orientation.
So far, the only way that they can fathom achieving this goal is to see Netanyahu behind bars. Fearing justifiably that this is a pipe dream, they have been highlighting the internal strife ostensibly rocking Likud.
The joke is on them, however, for two reasons. The first is that it is par for the course for candidates’ claws to come out before an election. So trying to “expose” a battle between Netanyahu and Sa’ar as though it is some kind of scandal is no more than a typical click-bait-and-ratings maneuver.
The second is that even if Netanyahu were to resign suddenly, the Israeli press would engage in equally vicious attacks on his successor. The only thing protecting Sa’ar from the full (media) Monty at the moment, for example, is his antagonism to Netanyahu. Oh, and the fact that he is married to Geula Even, a long-time, left-leaning news anchor who resigned from Kan 11 TV a few weeks ago when her husband decided to return to politics and run, among 150 other Likud candidates, for the Knesset.
Indeed, as soon as the results of the Likud primaries are revealed on Wednesday, the Israeli communications industry will resume its efforts to discredit the party as a whole. But it is Likud that will surely have the last laugh.
Ruthie Blum is an Israel-based journalist and author of “To Hell in a Handbasket: Carter, Obama, and the ‘Arab Spring.’ ”