As Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu entered the boisterous hall of Kfar Maccabiah hotel on the evening of Dec. 2 to light the first candle of Hanukkah with members of the Likud Central Committee, the task of warming up the audience was put to the loyal hands of Knesset member and chairman of the coalition David Amsalem.
Earlier that day, the police announced that it recommends charging Netanyahu and his wife, Sara, in Case 4000 of various crimes, including bribery, such that the festive event turned into a show of support for the couple. Amsalem met with Netanyahu before the event in order to finalize details and go over the message. Since the resignation of Knesset member David Bitan from the role of chairman of the coalition, Amsalem has become very close with the prime minister.
When he got word that Netanyahu had arrived in the hall, Amsalem called on the audience to greet the prime minister and his wife “with enthusiastic applause and much warmth.” He didn’t have to say it. This is a group that believes that a witch hunt is being conducted against the Netanyahu couple with the aim of changing the regime. It turns out that the prime minister has succeeded more than was thought in convincing Likud supporters that all the investigations have one goal, which is to oust him from power — that is, to oust the Likud. He sowed these seeds in his Hanukkah speech a year ago exactly at the same forum, as criminal investigations of him were branching out.
Now Netanyahu is reaping the fruit, where his strategy is to harness the Likud public as a human shield for any future criminal indictment against him. Netanyahu knew a year ago that the key to his political survival is in the hands of members of the Likud Central Committee and that if he succeeds in harnessing it, then the top of the party and his potential heirs would have to toe the line and back him.
In order to understand the power of the symbiosis Netanyahu has created with Likud, we must listen to what Amsalem said — most of which was drowned out by the noise of the large and excited crowd that tried to physically reach the prime minister.
Amsalem spoke of his meeting that morning with Netanyahu. “We met this morning and you asked me why I’m sad. I think most people are sad today because of what’s happening; it’s unreasonable. We’re in a democratic state, and governments are changed at the ballot box, not by the police,” he said.
This was not the end of Amsalem’s impassioned speech, which in his case seemed to truly come from his heart. “I want to say to you one sentence that’s important to me: We are now at Hanukkah, and what characterizes this holiday is that spirit prevailed over matter. I am proud of your steadfastness and of the spirit you bestow on us. I strengthen you and your family so that truly the light of Hanukkah would shine in your home all year, and in the coming decades you’ll continue to lead us.”
Likud veterans don’t recall texts like these — as if there’s no party, no other senior figures in the Likud that could be an alternative to Netanyahu, as Netanyahu was to late Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, for instance. In Netanyahu’s era, the Likud is only “Bibi.”
Now, as he faces the battle of his life, Netanyahu is taking the Likud into the unknown. Not one of the ministers, even those considered close to him, knows where Netanyahu is heading or when he would (or if he would) call an early election.
In his previous terms, Netanyahu used to consult with and update his ministers. Today, everyone is under suspicion in his eyes. Not one of them can say that he knows the prime minister’s plans — not even Minister of Culture Miri Regev, who at the Hanukkah event made sure to snag a spot right next to Sara. It’s astounding that they know nothing even though their fate depends on it and even though it’s within their right to demand answers — and most certainly when Netanyahu’s legal situation seems so grave right now: The police recommends charging him with bribery and fraud in three cases. It’s a critical mass that can defeat him.
But in today’s Likud, no one is talking about the day after in fear that he’d be accused of undermining the leader and considered a collaborator of the left. Moreover, senior Likud officials estimate that after the next election Netanyahu would be the one to form the government, and so they make a cold calculation and back him. Add to this the influence of the general atmosphere among Likud voters: Netanyahu rules them, and they are his Iron Dome-like defense system.
Netanyahu’s speech at the event was, as usual, a masterpiece of appealing to the soft underbelly of Likud members. He “gave” them an updated message sheet when he argued that outgoing Police Commissioner Roni Alsheikh is out to persecute him; otherwise, how could one explain that the recommendations were announced on his last day in office? This proves, said Netanyahu, “what I’ve been telling you from day one: The game has been fixed from the start.”
Some political analysts believe that in his speech Netanyahu seemed like a criminal on the run and very scared. It could be. To Likud members’ eyes, he seemed that night like a martyr, a prime minister whom the left is out to depose by means of fabricated criminal investigations. Likud supporters identified with him. It’s been in the Likud’s DNA from the first days of the Herut movement, which preceded the Likud party. Thus, for a long time Netanyahu hasn’t been interested in what the mainstream media says about him; instead, he aims directly at the underbelly of his voters. In the new media era he also doesn’t need TV. His full speech was streamed live on his Facebook page.
However you look at it, the Likud movement has been taken hostage by its leader. Netanyahu can be compared to a captain who is guiding his ship in stormy and dangerous waters. He’s steering it alone, and none of the people with him on the deck have any way of knowing whether he’ll take them to a safe harbor or whether in retrospect this period will be considered their Titanic.