Benjamin Netanyahu has single-handedly been eroding his country’s democracy since he came into power. He is the country’s longest-serving prime minister, representing a parable of modern politics: a talented politician maintaining his authority by using a “perplexing mixture of… sound policy and cynically sowing division”.
Netanyahu or “Bibi” as all know him, is a big figure in his own right. He remains in power despite corruption charges against him. His “deft use of diplomacy and mostly cautious use of military force” has boosted the country’s security while maintaining its neutrality in the Middle East. This, as well as a shared hostility to Iran, has helped make relations with Arab rulers better than at any other time in Israel’s history. Even until just recently, the U.S. was engaging in talks with Saudi Arabia to recognize Israel’s statehood, a feat that came very close to fruition.
However, Bibi hasn’t kept power solely on the strength of his political record. He continuously seeks political advantage by eroding Israel’s democratic norms with populism: casting out those he preaches are illegitimate and maintaining a strong streak of “anti-solutionism”. These, as well as his inability to acknowledge his failures or tell the truth rather than peddle his own narrative, has worsened the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in recent years.
Anti-solutionism is enshrined in Bibi’s pessimistic approach to diplomacy, in which his policies reflect that he does not believe in Israel’s capacity to solve conflicts– only manage them. This, on top of his fear of the “wolves” surrounding Israel, means that he must rely on the country’s iron defenses and the passage of time.
Of course, this is where we are now. Israel’s defenses were breached, over a thousand people are dead, and many citizens are calling for melekh yisrael, the “King of Israel”, to step down. In claiming that no peace with Palestinians is possible or desirable, he has settled himself with their occupation and abandoned attempts for peace. This has lead to the adoption of a classic populist narrative: a we versus them scenario. Mr. Netanyahu furthered this phenomenon by pushing for an electoral pact with the far-right Jewish Power group whose charter is to annex all the occupied territories and “encourage” Arabs, even Israeli citizens, to leave. All of these developments assert Jewish supremacy and nationalism against an ‘other’, in this case the non-Jews or non-Israelis.
Jan-Müller highlights this “exclusionary form of identity politics” in his book, “What is Populism?”. To put it simply, this phenomenon is a populist’s (illegitimate) claim to represent the totality of the people. Of course, Mr. Netanyahu cannot represent all of the Jewish people in Israel even if he ousts every non-Jewish non-Israeli person from that representation. What is legitimate about this exclusionary claim, however, is the benefits it brings for populist leaders attempting to undermine the integrity of the opposition. In light of this, Müller defines this ‘we the people vs. you the other’ notion as a “moralistic imagination of politics”. This means that Netanyahu is the sole moral authority against an opposition of immoral, wrong, or corrupt individuals with a false message. This focus on morals allows populists like Netanyahu to persist in their ideologies and policies even in the face of contrary claims or evidence. The downfall of this, however, is the inability of the populist to reach any sort of political compromise with an opponent. Engaging in negotiations such as a compromise gives the opponent recognition and legitimacy in direct violation of the populist’s moral code. In his failure to recognize Hamas as a legitimate opponent, priotizing keeping with his moral code, did Bibi allow for a preventable tragedy to occur?
Mr. Yuval Harari, professor of history at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, does believe that Netanyahu’s hubris and established “alliance of messianic zealots and shameless opportunists” enabled the deterioration of security that cost Israel greatly this month. By appointing people to key positions based on loyalty rather than qualifications, and allowing them to grab power for themselves, Bibi positioned a government that enabled his populist agenda. Müller gives examples in his book when discussing exclusionary politics as a form of populism. Bibi’s government spreading divisive conspiracy theories and ousting the country’s “elites as ‘deep state’ traitors”, are perfect examples of the populist priding himself as singular and above the ‘illegitimate opposition’.
Most importantly however, is the arrogance of the populist that allows them to minimize failures and explode about their successes. In recent news peddled by the Israeli government, we see how Netanyahu swiftly jumped to action, rallying the defense forces and targeting the enemy smartly. What we don’t see in the news, is how the government was repeatedly warned by its security forces and experts that its policies were endangering Israel. You don’t read about how when the IDF’s chief of staff asked for a meeting with the prime minister to discuss the security implications of these policies, Netanyahu refused the meeting. When Defense Minister Yoav Gallant raised the alarm in spite of this lack of ackowledgement by Bibi, he was fired.
A populist will never stand for serious claims of incompetence by a subordinate. It is the leader that decides what is morally legitimate, after all; everything else is either a threat posed against them or a fallacy meant to cause panic. It is also up to the populist to decide what is right and what is wrong– peddling false narratives to the benefit of rallying the chosen people against the other is another populist tactic Jan-Müller discusses in his book. In 2015 Netanyahu did just that, wildly claiming in a speech to the World Zionist Congress that it was a Palestinian leader who first inspired Hitler to exterminate the Jews. Netanyahu has been able to incite fear in Israel’s public by lording the Holocaust over them, and in this speech he lies to again use the genocide to his advantage; in this case regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Israel’s government has corroded democracy by keeping a populist in power for so long. Now the people are firmly calling for the removal of Netanyahu, and hopefully, are back on track to rebuilding their homes, defenses, and democracy.