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benjamin-netanyahu
April 23rd, 2019

Israel’s Bibi, the avant-gardist of the contemporary populist disease

by:Ithamar Handelman-Smith, Josef Reich

On April 9th, 2019, the ugliest election campaign Israel has seen so far, was over. The next morning, centrist and left-wing supporters woke up to discover that Benjamin Netanyahu, or Bibi—as everyone calls him in Israel, was up for his fifth term, with a coalition comprised of his own party and its nationalistic and religious allies, who together form an even stronger coalition majority than in the previous term. How did this happen? To answer that, let’s look back to the beginning of the race.

On Monday, January 7th, the Israeli public was on high alert, awaiting a “dramatic announcement” by the Prime Minister. The televised event, which was more of a speech than a press-conference, as journalists were not allowed to ask questions, was used by Bibi to contest corruption allegations. During his rant, Netanyahu dismissed the Attorney General’s imminent  indictment of him on charges of bribery, fraud, and breach of trust as a “left-wing conspiracy” to overthrow him in an “undemocratic manner”. He went on to rail against anything that stands in his way, from his political opponents and the police to the public prosecutor and the supreme court. The tone for the campaign of his nationalistic party, the Likud, was set: blaming everyone who is not on their side for all the faults of Israeli society, and accusing without integrity entire constituencies - from the liberal Tel Aviv central-left to the Arab communities, whom he portrayed as traitors and “terror supporters”.

In a cunning move, Bibi had broken up his governing coalition, and announced  an early election in a bid to get a bigger majority for his government and, as is predicted, attempt to install the so-called French law which protects a sitting prime minister from prosecution.

Over the course of Netanyahu’s 12-year premiership, the Hebrew word for Leftie became synonymous with traitor. Consequently, no political party, other than the tiny Zionist socialist Meretz, dares to define itself as Left-Wing—not even the central-left Labor party, which totally crashed. Thus, the movement of the social democratic founding father David Ben-Gurion, who ruled Israel throughout the 50's and 60's, and the murdered peace-maker and noble-price-bearer Yitzhak Rabin, shrank to a 5 percent low, with many voters were flocking to the generals.

The generals? Some analysts were jokingly talking of a military putsch while referring to the alpha-team behind the newly founded centrist party Blue and White (the colors not only of the sea and sky along Israel’s coastline but also those of the Israeli flag), led by former IDF (Israeli Defense Forces) Chief of Staff, General Benny Gantz, a charismatic former TV-journalist, and two other former Chiefs of Staffs. Together, these four middle-aged men were looking sternly from the huge Blue and White election banners into their electorate’s eyes, posing the only serious challenge to Netanyahu’s victory. But the dire warnings of the three former military leaders to the nation that Netanyahu is a liar who poses a danger to Israeli democracy and divides the country were  not enough to undermine the religious and nationalistic majority. Assuming that he had the left-wing vote in the bag, Benny Gantz’s campaign took on increasingly aggressive messaging to attract voters away from the right, with one video bragging about his achievements as a commander during the 2014 Israel-Gaza conflict, when about 1,300 Palestinians were killed.

But despite these efforts, most right wingers stuck to Mr. Netanyahu, and the Likud party won the largest number of seats they ever held in the parliament, though neck to neck with Blue and White, who absorbed most the majority of votes from the other half of the electorate which were united by the one and only slogan: Just not Bibi again.

As corruption cases against him mount, the love and trust of Netanyahu’s massive fan base only grow stronger. Out of historical mistrust in the socialist labor party, dominated by the privileged East European Jews of the first Zionist waves of immigrants, the majority of Middle Eastern Jewish immigrants and their descendants traditionally vote for the nationalistic Likud. This constituency is overlapping in great parts with the working poor, the less educated, those who long for a strong man’s hand, and those who appreciate  the middle-finger Bibi shows his alleged foes—the media, the judges, the same establishment—which they believe never did much to raise their life-quality and social status.

Israel could be seen as a forerunner of worldwide populism, and Netanyahu as the avant-gardist of the popular, charismatic, reality-show style leader.

In his new documentary “King Bibi”, which was broadcast on ARTE on the eve of the elections, Israeli director Dan Shadur follows Bibi’s rise to power through four decades of public appearances. The film shows how  Netanyahu understood the political benefits of creating a toxic relationship with the media and communicating directly with the public long before Facebook, Twitter, and the spectacle of the Trump-presidency.

Shadur’s documentary exposes Bibi’s self-making in his early years in the U.S. For instance, after changing his career from furniture sales person to politician, Bibi auto-didactically exercised “7 steps for fearless speaking by Lilian Wilder”—an audio-tutorial on cassettes from the 80’s.

In our opinion, it is valid to compare Netanyahu’s character-building process with that of Hitler’s, who also started his career by self-taught acting in front of an audience. Both figures share in common the eagerness to learn how to theatrically address the masses and to gain followers, the paranoia that nourishes their charismatic mission, and the ability to convince their listeners. In order to learn from history, we should not overlook these striking similarities. It is not helpful to keep the image of Hitler as taboo—an inhuman, incomparable and singular phenomenon. While Bibi will never, of course, turn out as a bloodthirsty dictator, who throws his adversaries into prisons and builds death-camps. Only anti-Semitically motivated, anti-zionist extremists would maintain such nonsense. He nevertheless belongs in the category of populists who manipulate their nation with lies and stigmatise the free press as lying press.

One day Bibi will be history, hopefully sooner than later.

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