The Israeli general elections are almost upon us and the dirty tricks campaigns are in high gear from all sides with vandalism of election posters and hacking into party computers taking place, besides the regular bad-mouthing of political adversaries.
Tensions have flared and smear campaigns have taken hold in Israel ahead of the opening of polls in the Israeli national elections, with two reported incidents of vandalism at both Tzipi Livni’s party and Shas headquarters.
In the first incident, unidentified vandals set fire to several Torah books at the Shas party headquarters in Or Yehuda on Saturday night, Israel Radio reported.
A poster featuring Bayit Yehudi leader Naftali Bennett close to a central Tel Aviv shopping mall had been defaced too.
On Sunday morning, vandals sprayed graffiti on the walls of the Tzipi Livni Party headquarters in Tel Aviv, according to a party statement.
The graffiti in Tel Aviv reads: “Yigal Amir was right,” in a reference to former prime minister Yitzhak Rabin’s murderer. MK Yoel Hasson filed a complaint with the police.
Tzipi Livni on Sunday responded to the graffiti, saying that the words “illustrate our understanding of the struggle we face.”
“I didn’t vote for Rabin but he was still my prime minister – and no one will assassinate our democracy and our Zionist dream.”
Livni was also target by anonymous hacktivists who sent out text messages with her personal cellphone number, and calling on message-recipients to harass the Tzipi Livni Party chairwoman. The party filed a complaint with the police.
Hackers also targeted Yesh Atid’s website with a DoS (denial-of-service) attack meant to crash the site by overwhelming the site’s network with computer traffic. The party found the attacks originated from IP addresses in Israel and abroad and worked to stop them.
The Bayit Yehudi party (formerly known as the Mafdal or the National Religious Party) has proven to be something of a lightning rod in the electoral smear campaigns since it has seen its popularity sky-rocket under the new and dynamic leadership of Naftali Bennett. This has obviously unnerved the other parties and has provoked them into trying to undermine the party by attacking its leadership and bad-mouthing its members.
One of the most egregious attacks on Bennett arose out of a malicious TV interview by Channel Two’s Nissim Mishal who ambushed Bennett and trapped him into admitting that he would prefer to disobey orders and go to prison rather than expel Jewish settlers. Mishal pounced on Bennett’s words and distorted them into something different altogether, making out that Bennett advocated mutiny in the army. However, Mishal’s attack backfired and Bennett’s popularity only grew.
The government TV watchdog deemed the interview unfair although Mishal, unjustly, was not punished and escaped with a warning.
In the interview, Mishal, who has been working in news journalism for over three decades, concentrated on the issue of IDF soldiers disobeying orders they felt uncomfortable with. In the interview, Bennett said that while following orders – in the context of evicting Jews from their homes, as the government is attempting to do in several new communities in Judea and Samaria – was important, it would be understandable that soldiers might feel uncomfortable with those orders, and if that was the case, they should tell their commanders that they are unable to fulfill those orders and asked to be transferred to another unit.
Dozens of viewers complained to Regev about Mishal’s badgering of Bennett during the interview, his attempting to push the Bayit Yehudi leader for yes or no answers without letting him discuss the context of his response, and failure to give Bennett the opportunity to answer questions. In addition, the viewers said, Channel Two took statements Bennett made out of context, displaying half-answers as headlines and attributing to him statements and views he did not hold. It was, in the words of one complainant, a “hatchet job planned by Mishal to make Bennett look bad.”
The next scandal to be pounced upon by Bayit Yehudi’s rivals was a video unearthed from back in 2010 in which Jeremy Gimpel, an American Oleh, no. 14 on the list, was shown theorising about seeing the Dome of the Rock blown up. Of course such a subject is no laughing matter but no one in their right mind would think that Gimpel was speaking seriously and not metaphorically. No one, that is, unless they are in the midst of a bitter election campaign.
Tzippi Livni, she of the ever-resigning and setting-up new parties ego, has appealed to the Elections Committee to have Gimpel barred, and has accused Bayit Yehudi of practicing sedition. She also seems to be jumping the gun and assuming that she will be in the next government for she is already demanding that Bayit Yehudi be kept out of the next coalition.
Naftali Bennett sharply answered his critics back:
In an interview with Channel 2’s “Meet the Press” program on Saturday night, Habayit Hayehudi leader Naftali Bennett turned to the camera and addressed Prime Minister and Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu.
“Mr. Prime Minister, you have signed on to a despicable campaign against the knitted skullcaps [national religious Jews], which reminds me of the exact same attacks on you after the Rabin assassination [in 1995, when Netanyahu was opposition leader and was criticized for having helped inflame the situation],” Bennett said. “[Netanyahu] has launched an ugly campaign the scale of which I have not seen before. It is incredible. Netanyahu is once again engaged in friendly fire against the knitted skullcaps, and is oblivious to the historic damage he is inflicting by having this rupture with the very constituents who have twice propelled him to the premiership.”
Bennett’s comments came a day after the airing of a controversial video in which one of his party’s candidates, Jeremy Gimpel, speaks about the rebuilding of the Jewish Temple on the ruins of the Dome of the Rock, the Islamic shrine on the Temple Mount.
Next on the list to be attacked is Rabbi Eli Dahan, who was accused in a Likud election ad of calling for the dismantling of the Knesset’s Committee on the Status of Women. However once again the Likud have shot themselves in the foot for it was not Rabbi Dahan at all who made such a call. Archives reveal that it was davka a Likud MK who sought to cancel this committee.
A look at the Hebrew-language newspaper Yediot Aharonot’s 2003 archives shows that then-MK Reuven Rivlin proposed ridding the Knesset of several committees, among them the Committee on the Status of Women. Rivlin argued that the committees in question were not needed as independent bodies, and that the Knesset Committees would operate more efficiently if those committees’ functions were transferred elsewhere.
Rivlin’s suggestion upset both feminist organizations and female MKs within the Likud party. His idea was ultimately shot down, and the committees remained.
Jewish Home party head Naftali Bennett explained last week that Rabbi Ben-Dahan never suggested getting rid of the Committee on the Status of Women, but rather, sought to unite it with the Committee on the Rights of the Child – a move he thought would strengthen both committees.
Sources within the party have argued that Rabbi Ben-Dahan’s history in the religious courts system proves he is not sexist. On the contrary, Rabbi Ben-Dahan worked to promote women’s rights, they said.
A disgusting attack on Bayit Yehudi by Shas leader Rabbi Ovadia Yosef completely shocked and sickened me. Rabbi Ovadia called the Bayit Yehudi (“Jewish Home”) “a home for goyim“. With no offence to my gentile readers, having a great Rabbi call religious and sincere Jews “gentiles” is a huge insult.
The right-wing Orthodox Jewish Home is no home for Jews, and Israelis should not vote for the party, Shas party spiritual leader and former Sephardic chief rabbi Ovadia Yosef said during his weekly sermon on Saturday.
“They call them the ‘Jewish Home’ but this is not a home for Jews; it is a home of goyim [gentiles],” Yosef said. “They want to uproot the Torah, to institute civil marriage. It’s forbidden to vote for them. These are religious people? Anyone who votes for them denies the Torah.”
Yosef’s comments came after Ayelet Shaked, who’s fifth on the Jewish Home party’s list, alluded last week to the need to institute some form of civil marriage in Israel. The Jewish Home has also been outspoken in supporting easier conversion to Judaism, stating that it would seek to wrest control of the process from the ultra-Orthodox after the elections.
“They are all wicked, haters of Torah and mitzvot. They want to institute public transportation on Shabbat,” Yosef charged. “A Jew who wants to marry won’t have to go to the rabbinate — have you heard? How can they call themselves religious? How can we be complicit in this?”
In response, Jewish Home leader Naftali Bennett called Yosef an “important spiritual leader” whom “we revere and respect,” and said that the Jewish Home, whose purpose is to be “a bridge between sectors of society,” has been attacked from all sides, so “we’re probably on the right path.”
Every time Naftali Bennett reacts to the insults and smears from all sides of the political spectrum I admire him more and more, both for his honesty, for his fortitude and for his politeness – a very rare trait in Israeli politics.
However Bayit Yehudi have not been just passive participants in the electoral hanky-panky and have come up with some sneaky tricks of their own. Their latest ad showed Netanyahu together with Bennett with the slogan “Being strong together – vote Bennett”. The Likud correctly asserted that the ad was misleading, falsely implying that a vote for Bennett would be a vote for Netanyahu, and demanded that the ad be removed.
Bennett’s soaring popularity has even caught the eyes of the foreign press who have dubbed him “a rock star“.
The question arises, why is Bayit Yehudi, and Naftali Bennett specifically, such a huge threat particularly to the Likud? After all, they are on the same side of the political spectrum. It seems that that is problem, as Mati Tuchfeld in Yisrael Hayom explains:
Likud-Beytenu has established not one team to combat the loss of voters to Naftali Bennett’s Habayit Hayehudi party, but two teams.
There are those who say that Likud is exaggerating. Why would a ruling party, forecast to win far more seats than all its rivals in the upcoming election, dedicate so many resources to combating a mid-size party, and from the same right-wing bloc, no less?
So far, Bennett has waged a successful campaign. He took an antiquated, irrelevant party that had become synonymous with boring sectorial wheeling and dealing, and within weeks infused it with life and fresh hope and beautiful, young people, even people from Tel Aviv. Bennett wanted to communicate a clear message: He is not in anybody’s pocket. He kept his behind-the-scenes personal rivalry with Netanyahu under wraps, complimenting the prime minister here, and jibing him there.
The last thing Bennett planned on when he assumed leadership of the party was a clash with Likud. What exactly is he going to do with the 12 Knesset seats the polls predict he will win if he ends up in the opposition?
Many individuals and groups for whom Netanyahu’s continued leadership is financially and politically detrimental have embraced Bennett, despite his affiliation with the Right. The potential damage Bennett could inflict on Likud has prompted these individuals and groups, which wield extensive financial and media power, to boost Bennett’s visibility and try to maximize his power, which in turn consistently erodes Likud’s power. These individuals and groups are willing to turn a blind eye to the ideological gap between themselves and Bennett, as long as he continues to serve their interests by undermining Likud-Beytenu’s power.
The Times of Israel also has a theory about Bennett’s meteoric rise, together with the rising popularity of former TV star Yair Lapid of the new Yesh Atid (“There is a Future”) party. In an article punnily dubbed (in an echo of the United Colours of Benetton ad) “The Untried Colours of Bennett” they write:
In fact, the few weeks of the campaign have highlighted fascinating trends in Israeli sentiment and affiliation, including the public’s apparent readiness to vote for fresh, unfamiliar faces, with no dependable track record. More notably, lots of Israelis — especially young Israelis — are evidently ready to vote for fresh, unfamiliar faces with very specific policies which, if implemented, would fundamentally change Israel.
The Likud held a not terribly impressive 27 seats in the outgoing Knesset. Avigdor Liberman’s Yisrael Beytenu held 15. But far from raising their joint total beyond 42 in these elections, the polls show the two parties, running together as Likud-Beytenu, can expect no more than 34-38 seats. The Netanyahu-Liberman alliance seems to have alienated many of the Likud’s traditional and Orthodox voters, who are switching in droves to Naftali Bennett’s Jewish Home party. And pro-settlement voters are switching to Bennett too, concerned that Netanyahu is not reliably committed to expanding settlements — which is somewhat ironic, given President Barack Obama’s reported assessment that Netanyahu’s insistent settlement-building plans will come to spell an existential threat to Israel.
In these final weeks of the campaign, while Netanyahu limps toward the finish line, the momentum is emphatically with Jewish Home — boosted, not harmed, by Bennett’s assessment that an IDF order to dismantle settlements is fundamentally illegal; and undeterred by US-born Jewish Home prospective MK Jeremy Gimpel’s documented relish for the theoretical prospect of a new Jewish temple replacing a “blown up” Dome of the Rock atop the Temple Mount.
And along with the unproven right-wing party leader Bennett — whose party is said to be so popular among young Israelis that he’d be a prime ministerial contender if the vote were limited to those under 35 — the momentum is with the unproven centrist party leader Yair Lapid. Both men project a certain likability, both are articulate and quick thinkers, both are running slick campaigns with a heavy social media presence. Both have the supreme advantage of carrying no Knesset baggage. And thus both are proving popular among voters for whom greater familiarity might, in time, come to breed contempt.
But while Lapid is an appealing candidate, a disarming mix of casual charm and a demonstrable work ethic — he’s been campaigning relentlessly nationwide month after month after month — he stands largely for reallocating national financial resources to benefit the middle classes, for ensuring that ultra-Orthodox and Arab Israelis perform national service, for lean and responsible government, as he tells Times of Israel readers in a new op-ed. Laudable causes they may be, but they do not sculpt Israel’s ideological and physical contours.
Bennett, by contrast, comes with a firm ideology — a desire to reshape Israel practically and religiously, to expand its borders, to deepen its Orthodox fealty.
This is going to be a fascinating election, not for the actual poll results which appear to be pretty predictable, but for the kind of coalition that Binyamin Netanyahu will finally put together. Will he include his arch-rival and nemesis Naftali Bennett? Or will he leave him out in the cold – and include another rival, Tzippi Livni?