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Bibi Works the Phones

While Netanyahu’s ultimate message is always the same, the details vary from person to person


“Half a million dollars for one lecture.” That’s the figure Binyamin Netanyahu cites when he wants to illustrate the sacrifice he’s made for turning “service to the state” into his life mission.

But several American chareidi donors and activists have received more than one free lecture from Netanyahu over the past few days, as he has drafted — or dragged — them into the Israeli election campaign.

“I felt like [Pfizer CEO] Albert Bourla during the vaccine go-round,” one of them told me, speaking of phone calls taken from Netanyahu’s office at 8 p.m. Jerusalem time.

Bourla, readers may remember, recounted how the Israeli prime minister tsheppered him to make Israel the first country to test Pfizer’s vaccine on a nationwide scale.

“You need to watch how the guy starts conversations with foreign leaders to understand the method,” a Netanyahu staffer told me. “He fixates on a crack during the conversation — it was Bourla’s Jewish-Greek roots, in that case — and widens it into a window and a door.”

And while Netanyahu’s ultimate message is always the same — a catchy slogan repeated again and again is part of the method — the details vary from person to person. When he spoke with the American philanthropists this week, he found a way to prod each one.

With one, he raised the danger to the Torah world; with another, Lapid’s inaction on the Iranian nuclear threat; while with a third, the Greater Israel vision, which could be seriously jeopardized if the left clings to power for another term. Each of the philanthropists has a soft spot for the Jewish homeland, and Netanyahu homed in on that target with each one.


Previous Israeli prime ministers have also called on influential Jews abroad when they needed international support. And of course, they always answer the call. In Israel, as in America, you don’t keep a national leader waiting on the line.

But this time, Bibi refined the technique. He leveraged the calls with American donors to patch up an Israeli domestic political dust-up. Essentially, it was an attempt to bypass the politicians running the endless negotiations between Degel HaTorah and Agudas Yisrael, the two Ashkenazi chareidi parties that usually run together as United Torah Judaism.

Israel’s electoral threshold, raised from 2% to 3.25% by Avigdor Lieberman in 2014 to keep the then-disunited Arab lists out of the Knesset, has become a powerful inducement to unity among the country’s smaller parties. The latest politician to miss the threshold, by only a few thousand votes, was former prime minister Naftali Bennett, in April 2019.

His “New Right” party was just 2,000 votes away from making the cut and giving the right-wing bloc — sans Lieberman — the coveted 61 seats. Instead, three more elections ensued, at the end of which Bennett exploited the chaos to defect to the left and impose himself on the system as prime minister.

Netanyahu showed the American gvirim a series of polls he’s commissioned, all showing the same the bottom line: if Degel HaTorah and Agudas Yisrael run separately, at least one of them would miss the threshold and crash out of the Knesset. Bibi himself believes the outcome would be even worse, and both parties would fall short.


Likud chairman Netanyahu is a master of persuasion, and the party’s campaign will rely heavily on his campaigning. Last week, Netanyahu unveiled the armored “Bibi ba [Bibi is coming]” truck, which will allow him to speak spontaneously to crowds across the country without having to take annoying security precautions. In his phone calls with the American negidim, Netanyahu compared the current election to presidential primaries in the US, in which campaigns use databases to target specific voters.

“I don’t intend to convert the converted,” he explained, “or hold staged rallies where the exact same people show up five times in a row.”

“We’ve located 200 gold mines,” Netanyahu explained, “right-wing neighborhoods where turnout fell dramatically and where we’ll make a targeted effort to bring voters to the polls.”

Bibi outlined an apocalyptic scenario to the American donors. “Turnout will surge. Right-wing voters will wake up and turn out in force. Left-wing voters will also turn out in droves — they see a golden chance to beat the right, thanks to the split among the chareidim.

“The chareidi parties, however, don’t have additional reservoirs of voters to call on, because their turnout rate is high in every election. The result will be that for the first time in Israel’s history, the Ashkenazi chareidi community will be left without Knesset representation, and the left will triumph, all because of the chareidi split.”


This is where the Americans come in — Netanyahu’s search-and-rescue forces. He heavily implied that their checkbooks could bridge the divide.

“This is an ideological dispute, so it will be harder to resolve,” Netanyahu said, accurately diagnosing the roots of the UTJ split.

The Belz chassidus’s intention to sign up for a new Education Ministry program has become an ideological machlokes over the flagship issue of chinuch, with Degel HaTorah making clear that chinuch comes before politics.

“I respect an ideological difference between the greatest of the rabbanim, Netanyahu said, “but there’s a financial dimension to Belz’s move. This isn’t a lot of money we’re talking about. Belz has debits of $6 million.

“You, of all people,” he told the donors, “who propped up the Torah world in Israel during its toughest year, should understand better than anyone what will happen if no solution is found. The result would be the wipeout of the chareidi community’s Knesset representation, and as a result of that, the wipeout of the Torah world under a left-wing government, which will cut funds to chareidi yeshivos and educational institutions. It’s incumbent on you to step in and have your say with the rabbanim.”

The deadline for presenting Knesset lists is Thursday, so the die will have been cast by the time you read this. But regardless of the result, the backstory can teach us something about Israeli politics in general, and the chareidi variety in particular.

The 72-year-old Netanyahu is tireless. This week he was spotted jogging at the beach, while his Shin Bet security detail struggled to keep up. As the chareidi MKs doze, Bibi is making wake-up calls around the clock, Jerusalem and New York time, trying to save the right-wing bloc.

If Bibi still fails, at least we’ll be able to say that we watched Israel’s greatest politician in recent history fighting to the end as if it were his first time in the ring.


(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 928)

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