Last week, several huge billboards sprung up along the Ayalon highway in Tel Aviv, showing two men in business suits: Benjamin Netanyahu and Donald Trump. The posters are part of the Likud election campaign, currently directed by the man in the solid red tie in the picture (which for once is not Trump). The slogan reads: “Netanyahu, a different league.” Since the highway was bumper-to-bumper traffic — also thanks to the man in the red tie — I had time to stare at the poster and mull over its meaning, and over what exactly these two men have in common except their age (Netanyahu is 69 and Trump 72) and sex.
At first glance, I felt offended on Netanyahu’s behalf. Trump is a blot on the landscape of American presidential history, a dodgy businessman and serial bankrupt who owes his political success to carefully edited reality TV, Russian spite towards the West and 30 years of baggage heaped on the Democratic candidate. In the two years since he was sworn in, Trump has managed to worsen American internal paralysis, disrupt the global economy and strip American influence in the important areas in the world, including the Middle East. Our man in the picture is better educated, more experienced and speaks far better English. If I had to vote for one over the other, I have no doubt whom I would choose.
At second glance, I felt pained on behalf of Likud voters. Netanyahu knows Trump better than us all. He knows that the grand gesture Trump made — moving the American embassy to Jerusalem — came with a price. He knows the great damage Israel suffered when Trump fled Syria, and what it suffers when he shows weakness in the face of Vladimir Putin and Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Israel is on board an aircraft flown by a fake politician — and all Netanyahu cares about is his first class seat.
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From now until April, the prime minister will squeeze every ounce of political worth he can out of his three titles of prime minister, defense minister, and foreign minister. Two weeks ahead of the April 9 elections, he’ll travel to the US and have his photo taken with Trump. He sought a formal dinner at the White House, and he is likely to get one.
American interference in Israeli elections is old news. Then-president Bill Clinton turned out for Shimon Peres in the 1996 elections, and Israelis didn’t mind. George W. Bush had a picture of Ehud Olmert and himself hung in the corridor leading to the Oval Office, and Israelis didn’t mind about that either. Now it’s Trump’s turn.
At third glance, Netanyahu and Trump are indeed in the same league — the league of suspects. “You have no idea what my attorney general has put me through,” Netanyahu will no doubt gripe when the two meet in March.
“Mandelblit?” Trump will moan in return. “You must mean Mueller. That dog! There was nothing because there is nothing. The Democrats and the media put pressure on him.”
“You’re right,” Netanyahu will answer. “You’re right, you’re an honest and just person. Now let’s take the picture, the voters are waiting.”
But right in front of Netanyahu’s billboard on the Ayalon stands a bigger one, belonging to the man who is fast becoming Netanyahu’s greatest rival – Benny Gantz.
The poster shows half his face, one piercing blue eye and a promise of “Israel Before All.” The ecstatic tidal wave that swelled after Gantz’s long-awaited maiden first speech has yet to settle, but the backlash was quick to follow as some cast doubt on the former army chief’s ability to fulfill every promise and pledge.
And that’s true of course. Promises during election campaigns are a reflection of a heart’s desire at best, and the empty platitudes of a speechwriter at worst. But there’s one promise Gantz is sure to fulfill if he’s elected prime minister — he’s not Netanyahu. And that’s a start.
Yet the momentum of a new horse in the race can come at a price: the candidate starts fearing a loss of impetus and becomes too cautious, almost paralyzed. Gantz has two weeks to establish his list of candidates, and he needs to bring in more people who can win him votes from the right and ultra-Orthodox blocs, and perhaps even votes from women. Orly Levi-Abekasis could be an asset, bringing in 4-5 seats. Uniting with Yair Lapid would look good on billboards, but could prove a mistake in the polls.
Coalition Chairman David Bitan slammed Netanyahu on Monday for demanding to reserve two more spots on the Likud Party list for the elections. But the things he was saying went beyond a row over candidates. Bitan was openly saying for the first time what Likud officials have been saying in secret: there’s now a conflict of interests between Netanyahu and his party. The Likud Party wants more seats, more MKs, more power. Netanyahu wants to rule for himself. He prefers criminal suspects like David Sharan to be Likud representatives in the Knesset, as long as they vote in favor of a law that prevents his indictment.
“I am the party,” says Netanyahu.
“No,” reply to his colleagues. “The party is us.”