TEL AVIV — In what starts out as a chilling, ominous video, jihadists in a four-door pickup truck bounce through a desert landscape, waving a giant Islamic State flag. Upon closer inspection, something is off about this crew—their truck has an anti-Netanyahu bumper sticker and they’ve got glue-on beards and speak Hebrew, albeit with comically bad Arabic accents. They wave down a passing car and ask for directions to Jerusalem. “Take a left,” they are told, as the words “the left will capitulate to terror” flash onscreen.
The message of this Likud party ad is clear: Vote for the left in Israel’s upcoming elections and get ready to see ISIS pour into the country, beheading and terrorizing Israelis, and sending the snuff films worldwide.
The ad is perhaps the most talked-about in an election campaign that critics have said is full of some of the worst attack ads in Israel’s rough-and-tumble political history.
In the United States, readers of The New York Times got a sense of the tone when they opened their papers Sunday to find a full-page advertisement accusing Obama administration National Security Adviser Susan Rice of being “blind” to genocide, “both the Jewish people’s and [in the 1990s] in Rwanda.” The ad, roundly denounced by many American Jewish organizations, was not placed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu or his campaign, but it clearly was meant to support him on the eve of his controversial visit to Washington to address Congress.
Some analysts are likening the anger, fear, and incitement in Israel at the moment to the atmosphere that preceded the 1995 murder of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin by right-wing zealot Yigal Amir.
In an exclusive interview with The Daily Beast, Yigal’s brother, Hagai Amir, who served 16 years in prison for his role in the plot, dismissed the question of incitement to violence: “Incitement is an invention of the left and the media,” he said, and then, in the kind of rationalization assassins have used throughout history, argued that his brother had “no choice” but to murder the prime minister who tried to make peace with the Palestinians.
Ironically, after all this, the erstwhile peace process is one issue that barely figures in the campaign as Israelis head to the ballot boxes on March 17, the second national election in two years.
Israel faces a number of challenges both internal and regional that have loomed larger in the public mind: a severe housing crisis, soaring living costs and stagnant salaries, an increasingly unstable Mideast, rising radicalism, and—who can forget?—a potentially nuclear Iran. But the conflict with the Palestinians? Most parties vying for election are not touching that issue with a 10-foot pole.
Just six months after the bloody 50-day war with Hamas, preceded by the kidnapping and killing of three Jewish teenagers in the West Bank, and the low-scale “third intifada” that followed mainly in and around Jerusalem, most Israelis see no urgency, or use, in trying to bring about an end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and there is no real political push to do so.
Those who do acknowledge the topic tend to do so with an emphasis on the existential threats to Israel’s future that a Palestinian state would present. But speak to most Israelis and they’ll tell you they worry more about whether they can make ends meet or if they can ever afford their own homes, not peace with the Palestinians or the threat posed by ISIS and its ilk, or even Netanyahu’s main campaign focus, Iran.
In fact, Netanyahu raised the ire of Israeli social media users when, in the wake of a scathing report on the housing crisis last week, he posted a tweet that attempted to shift the focus from the findings of the report to Iran’s nuclear program. Most tweeps issued responses along the lines of, “Did you seriously just write that?”
It was not the last in a series of bizarre posts by the PM that have been slammed as out of touch. In addition to Bibi’s “Yes, but Iran…” approach to his political campaign, which has taken him to Washington this week in a bid to win more mandates amid a fierce spat with the White House, the ruling Likud party has made anti-left sentiment a key focus of its campaign, and the rest of the right wing has picked up on that.
In a widely criticized ad by the Samaria Settlers’ Committee, leftists and left-wing NGOs are depicted as Nazi collaborators, accused of betraying their country and selling it off to the Europeans.
Netanyahu criticized the clip, but the committee receives public funds and echoes the government’s hostility toward organizations that highlight Israel’s settlement activities, campaign to boycott Israeli products, or support prosecution of Israeli soldiers.
Last week, hours after a Palestinian teenager stabbed a Jewish man at a busy crosswalk in Jerusalem, the Likud put up a post on Facebook charging that Hamas would operate in the heart of Jerusalem should the next government coalition be formed by its main rival, the Zionist Union, led by the Labor Party’s Isaac Herzog and Tzipi Livni, former chief negotiator with the Palestinians. The post was then shared by Netanyahu, who was accused of exploiting the attack to win votes and of “fueling the fires of incitement,” as one Labor politician put it.
The ISIS clip linking the Zionist Union and the terror organization with a penchant for massacring, pillaging, beheading and raping, generated similar accusations.
The ad prompted the left-wing Meretz party to call on the attorney general to investigate the Likud for incitement (he didn’t) and for the Central Elections Committee to ban the clip (it didn’t).
“For his election campaign, Netanyahu is once again using incitement to generate fear and turn the Left into a target for his poison, even at the cost of possibly dangerous consequences,” the Meretz members wrote in their letter, referring directly to the assassination of Rabin on November 4, 1995, a horrific, defining moment in Israel’s history.
Netanyahu has often been accused of taking part in, even encouraging, the toxic incitement campaign against Rabin that followed the signing of the Oslo Accords in 1993 and 1995, to date the most significant effort for peace with the Palestinians.
Rabin’s murder effectively derailed the peace process, drove a deep wedge through the heart of the political system, and subsequently pitted right versus left, religious versus secular. The country has never fully recovered.
The comparison drawn between the period of time leading up to the 1995 assassination and the present is jarring. Back then, Rabin was called a traitor and was depicted in Nazi uniform or donning Palestinian keffiyehs in posters across the country. The imagery was powerful and was meant to conjure up a sense of imminent, genocidal danger.
Hagai Amir agrees that the sense of peril he and his brother and many others felt at the time was tremendous. During a late-night interview in a private home in Tel Aviv, Amir, who was released from prison two years ago, said he and his brother “had no choice, Rabin had to be stopped.”
“At the time, there were terror attacks [almost] every day, buses were being blown up, people were dying in malls and restaurants. TV stations were broadcasting dead and injured Israelis day and night. At the same time, Rabin was shaking [the late Palestinian leader Yasser] Arafat’s hand and arming the Palestinian Authority, whose members were turning those weapons on innocent Israeli civilians,” Amir said.
He said he and his brother waited two years, that they “gave Rabin a chance.” Once Rabin signed the Oslo II Accords (which created Area A under Palestinian control; B under joint Israeli-Palestinian control; and C under Israeli control in the West Bank), the brothers considered putting their plan in motion.
“‘Oslo I’ could have been considered a foolish mistake, but ‘Oslo II’ was a crime,” said Amir. His brother is now serving a 99-year sentence for the assassination.
Now 45, Hagai Amir is a short, graying man who speaks softly but clearly, citing religious law to justify what his brother and he did. They acted, he says, in accordance with “Din Rodef” or “The Law of the Pursuer,” a Jewish edict that in a time of war a person is permitted to kill a pursuer to save his own life, whether the would-be pursuer is a Jew or non-Jew.
“The law says that you are allowed to kill those who intend to harm the state of Israel,” said Amir. “The signing of Oslo harmed the state of Israel in that lands belonging to Israel were handed over by Yitzhak Rabin.”
The brothers were also very much a part of the political right, which organized frequent demonstrations against Rabin. At one such demonstration in Raanana, a central Israeli suburb, a coffin draped in a black cloth bearing the words “Rabin is killing Zionism” was paraded through the crowd. In pictures from the rally, then-opposition leader Netanyahu can be seen walking just a few meters ahead of the coffin.
One worrying aspect of the tensions over the last year is the alarming rise in anti-left and anti-Arab sentiment. Following the abduction of the three Israeli teens this past summer, calls for revenge were rampant, and a day after their bodies were discovered, Jewish extremists kidnapped and killed a Palestinian teenager from East Jerusalem. They burned him alive.
During the summer’s war, protests against Israel’s Operation Protective Edge in and around Gaza were often met with violence, while dissenting voices, on social media or in the press, suffered an onslaught of abuse. Left-wingers are routinely called traitors, Israel-haters, terror-supporters, self-hating Jews, and anti-Zionists.
“In this general public mood, the word ‘peace’ is unacceptable, liberalism is not tolerated, and ‘leftists’ are considered those poised to commit high treason,” Yossi Sarid, a former Meretz politician and minister of education, told The Daily Beast.
“We are seeing the same attitudes [as 1995] and the same actors, as well. Netanyahu was a prominent figure then and he is one now,” Sarid said.
Tehilla Shwartz Altshuler, a research fellow and head of the Media Reform project at the Israel Democracy Institute, suggests the prevalence of social media in today’s campaign makes the current environment significantly different than it was in 1995.
“The real concerning issue is not the politicians,” she says. “If you look at posts by Israeli social media users in Hebrew, you’ll find an alarming level of extremism. There are heaps of racist, harmful posts online, and that’s a real problem.”
“But incitement in a political context can bloom and have influence [on the public] when no one contradicts or refutes it,” says Altshuler. “That is categorically not the case today with social media. Everyone sees these ad videos, but everyone also has something to say about it, and there is criticism.”
There is also a premium on humor and spoofing popular culture, as in the imitation ISIS video. “When the ads are funny, their real effect, besides making a splash online, is lessened,” says Altshuler.
Netanyahu and head of the ultra-right-wing nationalist party Jewish Home Naftali Bennett have been using social media to bypass the traditional media—which they label “leftist”—and to reach their audiences directly, she says.
“They’re telling their supporters, ‘See me here, talk to me here, laugh with me here, because the traditional media doesn’t like me.’”
Sarid is not so sanguine.
The inspiration for this campaign of hatred and fear “comes from above,” he says. “Not God, of course, but King Bibi. And the election campaign we see reflects the current reality in which the right has traumatized the Israeli public into abhorring the left.”
“The campaigns we see are simply an expression of this reality created by the right wing, this incitement with no limits, this ‘us and them,’” Sarid said.
In fact, the Likud’s campaign slogan is, precisely, “it’s us or them,” an effective emphasis on the division and animosity.
Sarid says another political assassination is unlikely as long as the left is perceived as weak, but given the charged political climate, “should a left-wing government rise again, this tangible threat will be as relevant as 20 years ago.”
“It’s not the era of liberalism,” said Sarid, “it’s the era of fascism.”
Yes, but what about Iran?