Why Bibi keeps winning
The Israeli PM is not the arch-populist his critics claim he is.
The atmosphere at the Likud party election-victory rally in Tel Aviv was more like a raucous football match than a conventional political event. It did not take long for its leader’s adoring fans to start singing a riff on a traditional Jewish ditty. ‘Bibi, king of Israel, lives, lives and exists’, they chanted again and again, with many waving Israeli flags. Messages flashed up on large screens declaring in Hebrew that Bibi was in a league of his own.
It was perhaps the ultimate nightmare for Israel’s critics both inside and outside the country. Benjamin Netanyahu, widely known as ‘Bibi’ within Israel, stood in front of his adoring fans with his wife Sara by his side. They were celebrating his success in achieving his fifth term as Israel’s prime minister (subject to a coalition agreement).
His opponents typically view him as being in the worst traditions of populist leaders. Netanyahu often presents himself as standing up for ordinary embattled Israelis against a weak national elite. He is widely criticised for whipping his supporters into a nationalist frenzy while promoting racist hostility to outsiders – towards Palestinians in particular.
Indeed, many see him as having created the mould which Donald Trump, with whom Netanyahu has a well-known bromance, has emulated. Both claim to be standing up for their grassroots base against a corrupt liberal establishment and both are often accused of racism. But Trump was only elected US president back in 2016, while Netanyahu’s first stint as Israel’s prime minister was way back in 1996 to 1999. Since 2009 Netanyahu has held the role in four consecutive knessets (parliaments).
More broadly, Netanyahu is often seen as part of an international brotherhood of populist leaders. He is widely despised for his fraternal relations with Brazil’s Jair Bolsanaro, Hungary’s Viktor Orban and India’s Narendra Modi (who tweeted a congratulatory message in Hebrew when Netanyahu’s imminent victory became apparent). Netanyahu’s tenure as a national leader is even longer than that of another veteran populist: Vladimir Putin, who first became Russian president in 2000.
Inside Israel, Netanyahu is widely blamed, both by foreigners and by Israeli leftists, for moving Israel towards an apartheid-like state. Some argue it is already there, while others say it is heading in that direction. His pledge towards the end of the campaign to annex parts of the West Bank only strengthened this perception.
But although Netanyahu does have many political faults, his critics are generally one-sided. Typically they present him as a master at controlling events when, more often than not, he is simply reacting to events. They also fail to understand his appeal inside Israel and, perhaps worst of all, they fail to comprehend the terrible plight of the Palestinians. To understand these points better, it is worth looking at the Israeli election campaign more closely.
Perhaps the most common observation about the election campaign, made by all sides of the debate, was that it became a referendum on Netanyahu himself. The focus for both his friends and foes was on him as a personality. There was relatively little debate about some of the pressing challenges confronting Israel. Certainly there was no serious discussion about finding a solution to the Palestinian question. Nor was there a debate about Israel’s extreme social inequality – with an elite tied to the high-tech industry doing well but many Israelis struggling to make ends meet.
Netanyahu ran what was widely dubbed a gevalt campaign (after a Yiddish expression of alarm). The closest English equivalent is probably the politics of fear. Netanyahu’s main point was that without him playing the role of strong leader, Israel would be vulnerable to attacks from its enemies. For Netanyahu, this referred to the Islamic Republic of Iran in particular as well as its ally, the Hezbollah (Party of God) Islamist group in neighbouring Lebanon.
The incumbent prime minister’s main message was that his opponents were incapable of dealing with such threats. Likud campaign adverts constantly berated his main opponents, the Blue and White party (named after the colours of the Israeli flag), as ‘weak’ and ‘leftist’.
Netanyahu also had substantial help from his foreign allies. He was hosted by President Trump in Washington, DC just two weeks before the election campaign. Shortly afterwards, Trump announced that he recognised Israel’s 1981 annexation of the Golan Heights (a mountain range captured by Israel from Syria in the 1967 Six Day War). Brazil’s President Bolsanaro also visited Israel just a week before the election, in a clear attempt to bolster Netanyahu’s authority. This was followed by a visit by Netanyahu to see Putin in Moscow.
Indeed, Netanyahu often seemed more intent on pursuing stage-managed photo opportunities with foreign leaders than engaging with the Israeli public. Until the latter stages of the election campaign, he had not done a television interview with the Israeli media for several years. Instead, he set up Likud TV to promote his message directly to his supporters.
Netanyahu’s main opponent in the election campaign was the centrist Blue and White party, formed only four months before the election. It was led by no less than three former chiefs of staff of the Israel Defense Forces and a former TV news anchor turned politician.
Essentially the Blue and White message was that it would pursue policies similar to Netanyahu but without the man himself. So, like Netanyahu and the Likud, it emphasised that it would be strong on security. That is why it pushed three former top generals to the fore and why in its early campaign videos it showed the devastating results of Israeli military campaigns in Gaza. Benny Gantz, Blue and White’s leader, was Israeli’s military chief during its incursions into the densely populated Palestinian enclave in both 2012 and 2014.
Blue and White also tried, unsuccessfully, to capitalise on various corruption scandals surrounding Netanyahu. In the early stages of the election campaign, Israel’s attorney general, Avichai Mandelblit, announced his intention to indict Netanyahu on charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust. In addition to that, he is facing the possibility of charges over corruption around the purchase of submarines from Germany. Several close associates of the prime minister are suspected of having received illicit funds as part of the scheme.
In the event, the scandals did not damage Netanyahu’s election prospects. It may be that in the future the scandals will return to haunt him, but they did not seem to sway Israeli voters in their electoral choices. Those who were planning to support him were not deterred by the allegations.
In addition to Netanyahu’s Likud and the Blue and White party, there were several small parties that played a significant role in the elections. On the right were various smaller parties that in broad terms offered an even more muscular version of what Likud was promising. These were generally also supported by the Jewish orthodox political parties. Both sets of parties were always likely to support any coalition government led by Netanyahu.
The largest party on the left was the Israeli Labour party, whose forerunners dominated Israeli politics in the early decades of the state. This time around it achieved an historic low, winning only six of the 120 seats in the Knesset. The last Labour prime minister, Ehud Barak, ended his tenure back in 2001. So there is now a whole generation of young Israelis who have never known a Labour prime minister in their lifetime.
Further to the left of Labour was Meretz, whose candidates included several Israeli-Arabs (that is, Palestinians who have Israeli citizenship as they live within the pre-1967 borders of Israel). In addition, there were several small parties that wholly or partly see themselves as representing the interests of Israeli-Arabs.
Although Netanyahu’s personal victory was far from a foregone conclusion, it was always clear that his type of politics would emerge victorious. If Blue and White had done slightly better, it might have formed a governing coalition. But some form of muscular nationalism always looked set to win. The appeal of the Israeli left has fallen to historically low levels, particularly among the young.
There are several reasons why what could loosely be called Bibi-ism is in the ascendant.
First, some form of nationalism was always going to appeal to Israeli voters. For most Israeli Jews, the Israeli state does represent a form of self-determination; for the minority of citizens who come from a non-Jewish background, the situation is of course more complex. It means that most Israelis feel they have some control over their lives in a region where they would not have it otherwise.
The idea of being in a regional union, along the lines of the European Union, does not even have a superficial appeal for most Israelis. Some Middle Eastern countries reject Israel’s existence while others are in a state of bloodshed and chaos. Yet the Israeli left often looks to the EU as a model to follow. For example, Dahlia Scheindlin, one of Israel’s top pollsters, wrote in the aftermath of the Brexit referendum that: ‘My colleagues and I commonly point to Europe as a way people can be separate and together; preserving borders but breathing easier, with built-in mobility and opportunity.’ To be fair to Scheindlin and her colleagues, they are willing to talk about the plight of the Palestinians when many Israelis are not. Many Israelis do tend to push the position of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza to the back of their minds. But at the same time, the critics often seem breathtakingly naive when it comes to the West in particular.
For example, many are critical of the separation wall that cuts through the West Bank to separate Palestinians from Jewish population centres. Yet they seem oblivious to the fact that the EU has a huge set of border fortifications and controls to separate it from North Africa and Asia. Many hundreds have drowned in the Mediterranean as a result. The European fortifications dwarf anything constructed by Israel, and the EU cannot even make a plausible claim that it is defending the lives of its citizens from attack.
Second, and related to the point about nationalism, is the reality that Israel does indeed face an existential threat. In that respect Netanyahu is correct. For example, Iranian leaders – from a country that dwarfs Israel by most demographic, economic and military metrics – have often threatened to destroy Israel. It should also be remembered that the Iranian regime is the main backer of Hezbollah in Lebanon.
Other parts of the region are at or near a state of war. Hundreds of thousands of people have been killed and millions have been displaced in the civil war in neighbouring Syria. Meanwhile, Lebanon, which borders on to both Israel and Syria, has taken in 1.5million Syrian and Palestinian refugees since 2011. This means that 30 per cent of its population consists of refugees, the highest concentration per head in the world. So although Lebanon has remained largely stable internally since its civil war ended in 1990, it is facing tremendous social strains.
The existence of such existential threats to Israel is one of several reasons why comparisons with other ‘populist’ regimes are misleading. Countries led by other populist leaders – such as the US, Russia, Brazil, India and Hungary – face nothing similar.
It is also worth noting that the days when the US saw Israel as an unquestionable ‘strategic asset’ are long gone. This shift tends to be lost because Trump is indeed ardently pro-Israel. But a divide seems to be opening up within the US about its attitude towards Israel. A new generation of self-styled progressive Democrats are far more critical of Israel than their predecessors were.
In fact, this shift started to become apparent in the 1990s. It seems to have been forgotten that as far back as Israel’s 1996 election, then US president Bill Clinton backed the Labour Party’s Shimon Peres against Netanyahu. And the mutual loathing between Barack Obama and Netanyahu was an open secret.
Now, at least, one wing of the Democratic party is becoming more explicitly hostile. For example, Bernie Sanders, the veteran US presidential candidate, has criticised what he called Israel’s ‘apartheid-like’ policies in a Facebook post. During the Israeli election, Democratic 2020 presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke explicitly called Netanyahu’s policies ‘racist’. Then there is Ilhan Omar, the US congresswoman from Minnesota, who has also called Israel an apartheid regime as well as making overtly anti-Semitic remarks. Such comments, it should be remembered, are coming from the top echelons of US politics. Not long ago they would be hard to imagine in that environment.
Meanwhile, European leaders have long taken a more caustic attitude towards Israel – for example by helping to fund a network of non-governmental organisations (NGOs) that are critical of the Jewish state. It is also worth noting that European leaders are more than willing to interfere in Israeli internal affairs. Perhaps most notably Emmanuel Macron, the French president, met Yair Lapid, the number two in Israel’s Blue and White party, in the run-up to the Israeli ballot.
None of this is meant to imply that Israel is beyond criticism. On the contrary, there are things for which it can justly be reprimanded. But the truth is that Israel does indeed face existential threats. In that context, the strengthening of an anti-Israel current in the West is bound to worry many Israelis.
Finally, there is perhaps the most difficult question of all: the lack of a discussion of peace with the Palestinians in the Israeli elections. On one level it is straightforward. There is no pressure on Israel to come to any accommodation. The Palestinian leadership in the West Bank is widely seen, even by many Palestinians themselves, as bankrupt. It is led by 83-year-old Mahmoud Abbas, sometimes known as Abu Mazen, who remains as president despite being elected to a four-year term back in 2005.
Meanwhile, Hamas, the Islamist organisation that controls Gaza, seems intent on playing a deadly game with Israel. Hamas militants fire rockets into Israel and they are then met by heavy retaliation by the Israeli military, usually in the form of airstrikes. Then a makeshift truce is agreed in which Israel makes concessions to Hamas in exchange for a period of quiet. Such an exchange, ended by an Egyptian-brokered peace agreement, also happened during the election campaign.
But the disappearance of the Palestinian question from the political scene cannot be explained simply in relation to Israeli repression or a bankrupt Palestinian readership. As I have previously argued on spiked, Western intervention has played a key role in intensifying divisions between Israel and the Palestinians. The Western ‘peace process’ has made the two sides more divided than ever.
Although Western leaders typically talk of creating a ‘two-state solution’, their concern was never to recognise either side’s national rights. On the contrary, the goal of the ‘peace process’ was to depoliticise the conflict in the hope that it could be diffused. The West always preferred to cut the territory into pieces, following a longstanding imperial tradition, rather than leaving the two sides free to engage with each other. In that respect, Israel’s depoliticised elections represent a success for the West’s containment strategy, as does the bankruptcy of the Palestinian leadership.
But the situation is even worse than it was a few years ago. If Israel is often cast as the ultimate villain in world affairs, then Palestinians have the ignominy of being the ultimate victim. The preoccupation with Israeli ‘apartheid’ turns what is a tragic political conflict into a pantomime.
Although the Palestinians certainly suffer from some discrimination at the hands of the Israelis, the treatment by their supposed friends is even worse. Palestinians are no longer viewed as a grouping that has a right to control their destiny. Instead they are viewed as an identity group whose main goal is to be the recipients of Western pity.
In the jargon of NGOs and international organisations, this approach is known as a rights-based discourse. Essentially this turns the Palestinians into a passive community of victims which has no power to shape its own affairs. Instead, transnational organisations take on the role of giving voice to the Palestinians in the world. In the process, the Palestinians are robbed of the opportunity to speak on their own behalf.
Netanyahu was elected to his fifth term as Israeli prime minister as he keyed into the national aspirations of Israeli Jews as well as exploiting the pervasive sense of existential fear that permeates Israeli society. Although he can be justly criticised for many of his policies towards the Palestinians, he is far from alone in creating their plight. On the contrary, the Western critics of nationalism have created a climate in which Palestinians are cast as the ultimate victims of global affairs. And as a result, Palestinians’ own aspirations for national self-determination are taken away from them.
Daniel Ben-Ami is a writer. An expanded version of Ferraris for All: In Defence of Economic Progress is available in paperback. (Buy this book from Amazon (UK).)