In his book “What is Populism,” Jan-Werner Müller presents a nuanced definition of populism that emphasizes its anti-pluralist, exclusionary nature and appeal to the chosen people against a corrupt elite. The nucleus of the argument is to analyze how Benjamin Netanyahu, the Prime Minister of Israel, fits within Müller’s definition of populism. Netanyahu’s decades-long political career provides a rich backdrop for this analysis, allowing for an examination of his leadership style, rhetoric, and policies through Müller’s definition.
I. Populist Leadership Style
Müller argues that populist leaders often employ a charismatic and divisive leadership style that sets them apart from traditional politicians. Netanyahu’s leadership style exhibits several characteristics aligned with Müller’s definition of populism. He is known for his charismatic and articulate verbiage, which has played a pivotal role in shaping his image and garnering support. His ability to deliver powerful speeches has allowed him to connect with the masses and establish a personal rapport with his followers. Akin to that of Former President Trump, whose rousing speeches and particularly rough language made him more appealing to the masses. Populist leaders frequently frame political debates in black-and-white terms, portraying themselves as saviors of the people against a corrupt and dangerous elite. Netanyahu has consistently employed this Manichean worldview by depicting Israel as under constant threat from external forces (Jordan, Egypt, Syria, etc) and emphasizing his role as the protector of the Israeli people. With Israel surrounded by Arab countries, Netanyahu can tap into feelings of insecurity. Müller argues that populists thrive on polarizing rhetoric that pits “us” against “them.” Netanyahu’s rhetoric often portrays his political opponents, the media, and even some segments of Israeli society as threats to the nation’s security and identity. This rhetoric further reinforces the idea that he alone can protect the everyday person. Netanyahu’s leadership style incorporates all the aspects that make a populist so dangerous to democracy. He is divisive, cunning, and charismatic, which has allowed him to further erode the already fragile democracy in Israel.
II. Populist Conception of the “Morally Pure People”
One of the central elements of populism, as defined by Müller, is the notion of the “morally pure people” who are promoted as the only legitimate members of the nation. Netanyahu’s political career demonstrates his adherence to this aspect of populism. His policies and rhetoric have frequently aligned with ethno-nationalism, emphasizing the importance of preserving Israel as a Jewish state. This ethno-nationalist stance implicitly defines a particular group as the morally pure people – Jewish Israelis – and frames others as potential threats. Whether it be the Palestinians in Gaza, the West Bank, or the surrounding Arab countries, they are all targets of Netanyahu’s vitriol. Populist leaders often enact exclusionary policies that prioritize the interests of their core supporters. Netanyahu’s policies, such as the Nation-State Law, have been criticized for marginalizing non-Jewish minorities in Israel and reinforcing the notion of a morally pure people (Berger). They often target marginalized groups, portraying them as threats to the status quo. Netanyahu’s policies and rhetoric have contributed to the marginalization of Arab citizens, refugees, and other minority groups in Israel. Prioritization of a single group within Israel (Jewish citizens) strengthens Netanyahu’s populist base and otherizes those seen as undesirable. The alienation of marginalized groups augments the damage Netanyahu’s brand of populism has caused in Israel, further fueling the flames of divide among the nation’s people.
III. Populist Anti-Pluralism
Müller’s definition of populism also highlights its anti-pluralist nature, wherein populists reject the legitimacy of their political opposites and undermine institutions that promote pluralism. Netanyahu’s actions and policies have demonstrated a degree of anti-pluralism consistent with this framework. Netanyahu has frequently criticized and undermined the legitimacy of key democratic institutions, such as the judiciary, media, and law enforcement agencies. His efforts to weaken these institutions are a portion of a broader anti-pluralist strategy to consolidate power. He even attempted to bribe opposing news stations like Yediot Aharonot by offering to suppress their competitor, Israel Hayom (Margalit). Former President Trump utilized a similar tactic during his tirades against the media, frequently referring to them as “Fake News.” Populist leaders often portray their political opponents as illegitimate or corrupt elites. Netanyahu has consistently used rhetoric that casts doubt on the motivations and character of his political adversaries, discrediting the legitimacy of the opposition. His reaction to criticisms against his judicial overhaul, in which he claimed his opposition was attempting to “spook” investors, demonstrates this (Staff). Populist politicians tend to centralize power in their own hands. Netanyahu’s long tenure as Prime Minister and his ability to control vital ministerial positions within his party reflects a concentration of power that subverts democratic pluralism. His constant attacks on the judicial system and courts of the Israeli parliament further erode the nation’s trust in democracy. Attacks on the media and political rivals are critical to the populist playbook, a strategy Netanyahu maximizes to maintain what he deems as acceptable levels of democracy.
IV. Populist Tactics and Strategies
Müller’s framework suggests populists employ specific tactics and strategies to maintain their support and authority. Netanyahu’s political career provides examples of these populist schemes. Populist leaders often seek to control or manipulate the media to shape public perception in their favor. Netanyahu has faced accusations of exerting undue influence on the Israeli media landscape, which has allowed him to control the narrative and maintain a favorable image. A representation of this phenomenon is the creation of crisis scenarios. Manufacturing or exaggerating crises to reinforce their role as the saviors of the people. Netanyahu has, at times, employed this strategy by emphasizing security threats and presenting himself as the only leader capable of addressing them effectively. Typically, this is in response to criticism leveled against him regarding the treatment of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza. They heavily rely on emotional appeals to connect with their followers. Netanyahu’s use of patriotic symbolism, historical references, and emotional rhetoric has resonated with many Israelis, reinforcing his image as a defender of the nation. Allusions to the long history of conflict between Israel and surrounding Arab countries provide Netanyahu with the ammunition needed to tug at his followers’ heartstrings. Creating a larger-than-life image of himself, backed by nationalist imagery, Netanyahu has essentially promoted himself to the defender of Israel and, by extension, the Jewish people. In essence, he can bypass democratic norms by manipulating both the people and the media.
In analyzing Benjamin Netanyahu’s political career through the lens of Jan-Werner Müller’s definition of populism, it becomes clear that Netanyahu exhibits several characteristics and strategies associated with populist leaders. His charismatic leadership style, emphasis on ethno-nationalist “morally pure people,” anti-pluralist tendencies, and reliance on populist tactics align with Müller’s framework. However, it is essential to note that the label “populist” is a layered and disputed one, and not all aspects of Netanyahu’s leadership may perfectly fit this definition. Additionally, public opinion on Netanyahu’s legacy varies widely, with his supporters highlighting his strong stance on national security and economic policies. In contrast, his critics emphasize his divisive tactics and the erosion of democratic norms throughout his tenure. In any case, Müller’s analysis highlights the importance of examining political figures and movements through a critical lens, particularly in terms of populism, given its impact on democratic institutions and processes. Benjamin Netanyahu’s political career provides a compelling case study for understanding the complexities and challenges associated with populism in contemporary politics.
- Berger, Miriam. “Israel’s Hugely Controversial ‘Nation-State’ Law, Explained.” Vox, 31 July 2018, www.vox.com/world/2018/7/31/17623978/israel-jewish-nation-state-law-bill-explained-apartheid-netanyahu-democracy.
- Margalit, Ruth. “How Benjamin Netanyahu Is Crushing Israel’s Free Press.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 30 July 2016, www.nytimes.com/2016/07/31/opinion/sunday/how-benjamin-netanyahu-is-crushing-israels-free-press.html.
- Muller, Jan-Werner, and Jan-Werner Müller. What Is Populism?, University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016. ProQuest Ebook Central, https://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/bu/detail.action?docID=4674419.
- Staff, ToI, et al. “Netanyahu Says Opponents Trying to Harm Economy with Criticism of Judicial Overhaul.” The Times of Israel, 31 Jan. 2023, www.timesofisrael.com/netanyahu-says-opponents-trying-to-harm-economy-with-criticism-of-judicial-overhaul/.