Bibi goes MAGA: How Netanyahu is exploiting the Capitol Hill riot

The Israeli prime minister and his supporters in the media are spinning the riot in Washington to paint anti-Netanyahu protesters as a dangerous threat.

Jacob Anthony Chansley, one of the Capitol rioters, is seen outside Capitol Hill after it was stormed on January 6, Washington DC. (Blink O'fanaye/CC BY-NC 2.0)
Jacob Anthony Chansley, one of the Capitol rioters, is seen outside Capitol Hill after it was stormed on January 6, Washington DC. (Blink O'fanaye/CC BY-NC 2.0)

“If, God forbid, Bibi loses, who supports doing what Trump’s supporters are doing?” asked a Facebook user last Wednesday on the popular “Likud Voters” group online, home to more than 14,000 members who support the ruling party in Israel. The storming of Capitol Hill in Washington D.C. was still taking place and Israelis, like the rest of the world, were watching the events mouth agape.

Since then, Israelis have been wondering aloud  — including on social media — whether a storming of the legislature could take place here as well, should Netanyahu lose the upcoming elections on March 23.

Netanyahu himself has a vested interest in reversing this narrative; he has quickly sought to spin the story on its head and portray the protesters who have been demonstrating against him for months as violent extremists, a la the insurrectionists at the Capitol. It is a spin that has further revealed the near-symbiotic relationship between the pro-Netanyahu right in Israel and Trumpist right in the United States.

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The new wave of demonstrations that began on July 14, 2020 was of course not the first against the prime minister. But unlike previous rounds, the latest wave has been continuing on a weekly basis with tens of thousands of protesters taking to bridges and intersections across the country, with the most vocal taking place directly in front of the Prime Minister’s Residence on Balfour Street in Jerusalem. The protesters have one thing in common: they all demand that Netanyahu resign over both his criminal cases and his failure to manage the COVID-19 crisis, which have created deep social and political polarization among Israelis.

From the moment the demonstrations began, the Netanyahu family has waged a stubborn campaign in an attempt to criminalize and delegitimize the protesters. They have been accused of anarchy, violence, hypocrisy, arrogance — even defecating at the entry to the Prime Minister’s Residence. Despite these attacks, police violence, constant harassment, and the coronavirus lockdowns, the demonstrations refuse to die down.

The recent events in Washington have once again shown the similarities between Netanyahu and Trump, and serve as a reminder of the degree to which Trump has directly affected politics in Israel in recent years. Like Trump, Netanyahu knows how to spot potential landmines, recover quickly, and turn them into opportunities to throw mud at whomever he perceives as his opponents.

President Trump greets Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu upon his arrival to the South Portico of the White House, January 27, 2020. (Joyce N. Boghosian/White House Photo)
President Trump greets Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu upon his arrival to the South Portico of the White House, January 27, 2020. (Joyce N. Boghosian/White House Photo)

A few hours after the beginning of the insurrection in Washington, at 10:30 p.m. Israel time, Yair Netanyahu, the prime minister’s son, began to send a clear message to his followers: the anti-Netanyahu protesters are no different from those who broke into the Capitol — and they are dangerous. For months, he claimed, they have been threatening to break into the Prime Minister’s Residence and damage it.

Meanwhile, false rumors began circulating among Likud WhatsApp groups, social media sites, and right-wing sites that Antifa and Black Lives Matter activists had infiltrated the Capitol insurrectionists in order to frame the right.

These rumors were orchestrated by all the well-known channels and mouthpieces of the Netanyahu family — whether journalists associated with the family, Twitter users, news anchors, and hardline Netanyahu supporters. The ground was effectively being laid for what was about to come.

Two days later, on Friday night, what began as Netanyahu’s spin became a major news item on Israel’s flagship television stations. The three Friday evening news shows simultaneously broadcasted a shocking report that a week earlier, Netanyahu and his wife Sara were taken by Shin Bet agents to a secure compound in the residence, after protesters broke through a barrier at the entrance. The message was clear: just like in Washington, protesters are trying to breach the cradle of Israeli democracy, with security officials fearing for the lives of the prime minister and his family. Following the investigation, security was reportedly beefed up around the residence.

Anti-Netanyahu demonstrators protest outside the Prime Minister's Residence in Jerusalem, December 27, 2021. (Oren Ziv)
Anti-Netanyahu demonstrators protest outside the Prime Minister’s Residence in Jerusalem, December 27, 2020. (Oren Ziv)

The media published the information — which they likely received directly from the Netanyahu family’s publicists — without checking its credibility. It was soon discovered that this was spin based on half-truths at most. While the protesters did get closer than usual to the prime minister’s house, they did not break through any barricades — because there were no barricades. They did not break through fences, nor did they climb walls or gates. They certainly were not armed, since these protesters have long ago declared their commitment to nonviolence, even in the face of police brutality. Sources within the police and the Shin Bet later clarified that the incident did not occur as presented by the media.

Needless to say, it is unlikely that anti-Bibi protesters will be storming any buildings should Netanyahu win.

‘Stalinist witch hunt’

Netanyahu’s spin may have been exposed, but the lie has still managed to convince his diehard base of supporters that something nefarious is afoot. They are now claiming they have further “proof” that, like his American counterpart, Netanyahu is being unjustly persecuted by a violent left-wing conspiracy that is trying to oust a sitting prime minister by all means necessary, including through lies, incitement, and silencing.

Israeli police arrest an anti-Netanyahu demonstrator during a protest outside the Prime Minister's Residence in Jerusalem, December 27, 2020. (Oren Ziv)
Israeli police arrest an anti-Netanyahu demonstrator during a protest outside the Prime Minister’s Residence in Jerusalem, December 27, 2020. (Oren Ziv)

That is precisely why the decision by Twitter and other media corporations to shut down Trump’s ability to promote fake news led to an outcry among the Israeli right. Just like Trump supporters, the pro-Netanyahu right in Israel views the prime minister as an eternal underdog (even though he has been in power for the past 11 years). The social media shutdown has allowed the right to return to its familiar and beloved perch as the ultimate victim.

“The great advantage of this Stalinist witch hunt, which is now culminating, is that everything is finally on the table,” wrote Erez Tadmor, a prominent right-wing media figure and former Netanyahu spokesperson. “The masquerade is over and even the last of the eternally-astonished, naive, and purist right wingers will have to understand what we have been screaming for years: the left is all about the silencing and persecution of right-wingers to the bitter end.”

Tadmor linked the events at the Capitol to “the Stalinist witch hunt that the Saladin gang [a derogatory nickname for Israel’s Justice Ministry] and the media are conducting against the leader of the right-wing camp.”

Like Trump, who sicced his followers against so-called traitorous Republicans — and even his own vice president — Tadmor’s wrath was mainly targeted at right-wing Israeli politicians who do not openly stand behind Netanyahu. These, Tadmor says, are “the greatest asset of left-wing fascism. They are what enables the violent minority that controls the centers of power to divide and conquer the right-wing majority…” 

The following day Tadmor warned:

The fascists of Silicon Valley managed to get Parler off the internet. Other companies are afraid to provide them with servers and cloud services for fear of a violent reaction from Apple, Google, and Amazon. The left is now fulfilling its fantasy of completely silencing the right on the platforms under its control and suffocating to death any independent platform. Make no mistake, it’s on its way here too.

Ariel Kahana, political correspondent for the Sheldon and Miriam Adelson-owned newspaper Israel Hayom and one of Trump’s biggest supporters in Israel, took the debate to the next level, linking the riot in Washington to Yigal Amir — the Israeli right-winger who assassinated Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1995:

If after the raid on Congress many Republicans went on the defensive and [displayed] regret, now the [social] networks are actually pushing them to unify in the basic struggle for their right to express themselves. In addition (as per the Israeli experience in 1995) when venting becomes forbidden, deterioration into violence is only a matter of time.

According to Kahana’s logic, if only the left had allowed Amir to express himself freely and spread lies, disinformation, and incitement 25 years ago (as was possible until recently on Twitter), he would not have murdered Rabin.

Preparing for the day after

Today, Netanyahu is more vulnerable than ever. He is ruling over a crumbling coalition in the midst of the most serious health and economic crisis Israel has known; he is under constant criticism for his failure to manage the COVID-19 pandemic, and even top Likud members are abandoning him. 

The prime minister is thus laying the groundwork for the day after the election, particularly for a scenario in which he loses. In April 2020, he threatened that were he to be disqualified from office, “there would be a call here to boycott the elections.” Two years earlier, David Amsalem, one of the prime minister’s closest allies and then-chairman of the coalition, stated: “I understand that the prime minister is being set up and we cannot accept this… if someone decides to put the prime minister on trial over these delusional cases, millions of people will not accept it.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and MK David Amsalem in the Knesset, Jerusalem, July 3, 2018. (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and MK David Amsalem in the Knesset, Jerusalem, July 3, 2018. (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)

Netanyahu’s supporters are already embracing the Trumpian idea that should he be forced to leave Balfour Street, it will be because of widespread election fraud. The Israeli judiciary is entering this election cycle after years of being battered by Netanyahu’s efforts to undermine its authority in the public eye. Meanwhile, the country is hobbled by a list of vacant positions — including a police chief and senior posts in the Justice Ministry — that leave the professional top brass enfeebled and dependent on politicians.

One can only hope that whatever is left of Israel’s democratic institutions, whose strength has always been in doubt, will know how to deal with such a situation.