The ultimate preview to Wednesday night’s mass rally at the Tel Aviv Fairgrounds was the statement Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s wife, Sara, uttered to American first lady Melania Trump upon her May 22 arrival at Ben-Gurion Airport.
“The media hates us, but the people love us,” she said.
Fast forward to Wednesday night, when the prime minister took his wife’s statement and made it the central theme of his address to more than 3,000 Likud activists who crowded into the hall on short notice to show him the love.
First, Netanyahu mentioned his love for Sara. Then, his love for the audience, for his party, and the people. The rest of the speech was about the media.
Long before Trump, Netanyahu realized that the public’s animosity for the press can be galvanized. The Israel Democracy Institute’s polls consistently show that journalism is the least respected profession in Israel, even lower than politician.
A sign in the crowd at the Fairgrounds could have fit in any of Trump’s rallies in the US: “It’s not fake news, it’s f***ing news.”
By turning his multiple criminal investigations into a fight between him and the media, Netanyahu painted himself as a victim being bullied and worthy of sympathy. But he did not stop there.
Netanyahu knew he needed to do more than equate the media with the Left. That is an easy task. He had to criticize the investigations against him, while being careful not to come out too strong against the police and the state prosecution.
The last thing Netanyahu needs is to be like Yoram Sheftel, the foul-mouthed attorney of Hebron shooter Elor Azaria, who called the IDF chief of staff a fatso, and then had to ask him to ease the sentence of his client.
Netanyahu had to make it look as if he is being investigated by the Left, so he brought up three symbols of the Left that are extremely unpopular with the public: The Oslo peace process, the Haaretz newspaper, and former prime minister Ehud Barak. If he could make those three his enemies in the eyes of the public, Netanyahu will have an easy sell.
“The Palestinians want me to be toppled,” he told the crowd, earning even more sympathy.
The story of the Likud’s Yitzhak Shamir being overthrown in 1992 and replaced by Yitzhak Rabin’s Labor Party due to false corruption charges is not entirely accurate. But it enabled Netanyahu to equate anti-corruption activism with giving up land.
The protesters who have been gathering outside Attorney-General Avichai Mandelblit’s home in Petah Tikva every Saturday night have taken pains to insist their demonstrations are not left-wing.
Protest leader Daphne Leef summarized that strategy when she explained why she would not be protesting outside the Tel Aviv Fairgrounds on Wednesday night.
“We are against corruption, not the Right or the Left,” she said. “We don’t need to fall in that trap.”
But one speech by Netanyahu giving the opposite message canceled out what demonstrations held every Saturday for more than 30 weeks tried to achieve.
The Petah Tikva protesters are now part of “them,” those who are trying to overthrow a government that “the people” want. They are part of the bad guys, the Left, the media.
Netanyahu is “the people.” And he delivered that message to a consensus of Israelis more effectively than was ever done by Donald Trump, who has never succeeded in forging a consensus in the United States. Donald and Melania still have what to learn from Benjamin and Sara, who trumped them on Wednesday night.