Shameful comparisons in the name of politics

Referring to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the same breath as Kim Jong-un and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan goes beyond the pale.

Israel Beiteinu chairman Avigdor Lieberman speaks during his party's election campaign conference in Tel Aviv, July 30, 2019. Photo by Tomer Neuberg/Flash90.
Israel Beiteinu chairman Avigdor Lieberman speaks during his party's election campaign conference in Tel Aviv, July 30, 2019. Photo by Tomer Neuberg/Flash90.
Ruthie Blum. Photo by Ariel Jerozolomski.
Ruthie Blum
Ruthie Blum, former adviser at the office of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, is an award-winning columnist and senior contributing editor at JNS, as well as co-host, with Amb. Mark Regev, of "Israel Undiplomatic" on JNS-TV. She writes and lectures on Israeli politics and culture, and on U.S.-Israel relations. Originally from New York City, she moved to Israel in 1977 and is based in Tel Aviv.

Is it too much to ask of Israeli politicians that they take a pause before providing priceless ammunition to the Jewish state’s worst enemies?

Clearly, the answer is “yes.”

In what can only be described as a frenzy to finalize party lists and mergers before the Aug. 1 deadline (and ahead of the Sept. 17 Knesset elections), the already disturbing rhetoric used by candidates and wannabes against one another in general, and against Prime Minister Benjamin (“Bibi”) Netanyahu in particular, has sunk to new lows.

This is no small feat, considering the vile name-calling that characterized the previous campaign, which culminated in the coalition stalemate responsible for the current re-do.

Until Sunday, when Yisrael Beiteinu’s Avigdor Lieberman called Netanyahu’s style of running the ruling Likud Party “North Korean,” the most egregious crossing of ethical red lines came from Blue and White Party leader Benny Gantz.

In an interview on April 7, exactly one week before the last Knesset elections, Gantz had the gall to compare Netanyahu to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, and to express “deep worry” for the future of Israeli democracy.

Yes, Gantz likened Netanyahu—the longest-serving prime minister in the history of the region’s only democracy, who is under investigation by the legal system and eviscerated daily by the press and academia—to an Islamist autocrat who has incarcerated thousands of judges, policemen, professors, politicians and members of the media.

Once the Erdoğan analogy was out there, of course, it rolled easily off the tongues of other Netanyahu detractors in the Blue and White bloc, such as Yesh Atid chairman Yair Lapid, and elsewhere. Inuring the public to outrageous claims cloaked as fact is a tactic, after all, not a reflection of an actual conviction. I mean, let’s face it: Gantz and Lapid must know that if Netanyahu were anything like Erdoğan, the two of them would have been sharing a jail cell long ago. And if they don’t realize it, their ignorance should disqualify them from office altogether.

Lapid certainly revealed a lack of judgement and good taste on Monday by tweeting a “humorous” video clip mocking the ultra-Orthodox parties for engaging in money-grubbing conspiracies. Though his intention was to curry favor with a certain sector of secular voters, his offensive use of the “Jews are plotting to control the country’s purse strings” stereotype was considered by many Israelis to be anti-Semitic.

Lapid, as it happens, is not an anti-Semite by any stretch. But he is certainly stupid, as his invoking of a Nazi-like trope for internal consumption illustrates. Not that any further proof was needed, given his overall pathetic performance and big mouth.

Which brings us back to Lieberman, the party chief-cum-“kingmaker,” whom the polls predict will determine the composition of the next government.

Unlike Gantz and Lapid, Lieberman is anything but ignorant or stupid. In fact, his intelligence and political savvy are precisely what have kept him relevant, even when his showing at the ballot box has been less than stellar. Indeed, despite his garnering of a mere five mandates in the April 9 election, which was held as a result of his resigning from and toppling the previous Netanyahu-led government, he called the shots.

Refusing to join a coalition that included the ultra-Orthodox parties, Lieberman prevented Netanyahu from forming a government.

His aim, he said at the time and continues to assert, is to have a national-unity government consisting of Likud, Blue and White and Yisrael Beiteinu, which he heads. The trouble is that Gantz has vowed not to enter a coalition with Likud, unless it ousts Netanyahu and selects a different party member to serve as its chairperson.

This makes sense since Gantz’s entire platform is based on “getting rid of Bibi.”

Lieberman, in contrast, is playing a brilliant game of chess.

On one hand, he says that Netanyahu, like any citizen, is “innocent until proven guilty” of any alleged corruption. It’s a wise position from someone who himself was the focus of police investigations for more than a decade—probes that ultimately fizzled out for lack of evidence.

On the other hand, he attacks Netanyahu at every turn for “only caring about hanging onto his seat” at the expense of the well-being and security of the state.

Talk about the pot calling the kettle black.

So, when he dropped a bombshell in the studio of Channel 12’s “Meet the Press” on Saturday night—saying that after the election, he might very well recommend to the president that a Likud member other than Netanyahu be called upon to take the first stab at forming a government—he was not misspeaking. Lieberman is nothing if not a cold calculator.

He thus cannot be excused for equating Netanyahu’s party leadership with that of the regime in Pyongyang, whatever the context. In this case, it was a petition circulated by Likud Knesset Member David Bitan on Sunday and signed by Likud’s top 40 candidates, declaring that Netanyahu was the party’s uncontested choice as leader.

As cringe-worthy as the move may have been, since it made Netanyahu look both desperate and fearful of Lieberman’s antics, it was a far cry (to put it mildly) from North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un’s methods. You know, which include terrorizing and starving his people, while brutally killing his opponents.

It is important to note here that Likud happens to be Israel’s most democratic party, which, unlike Yisrael Beiteinu, for example, holds transparent, countrywide primaries. Netanyahu’s chairmanship, therefore, is neither an accident nor a fluke. All that is required to replace him at the helm is for a majority of card-carrying Likud members to vote him out, which they have not done.

This is not to say that Netanyahu is above criticism, either from within Likud or among members of the opposition or the public. On the contrary, he is just as fair a target as his rivals. But there should be self-imposed limits on the level of mud-slinging. Referring to Netanyahu in the same breath as Kim and Erdoğan goes beyond the pale.

It is especially mind-boggling at a time when Israel’s very existence is under global assault by the BDS movement and the United Nations.

For Israeli politicians to undermine the serious efforts at home and abroad to counter the genuinely anti-Semitic delegitimization of the Jewish state by spoon-feeding lies to its enemies is worse than unconscionable. Anyone who engages in such shameful behavior is not deserving of a place at the table, let alone a seat in the Knesset.

Ruthie Blum is an Israel-based journalist and author of “To Hell in a Handbasket: Carter, Obama, and the ‘Arab Spring.’ ” 

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