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September 18th, 2019

On Tyranny: A close inspection of Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu

by:Ithamar Handelman-Smith

“Democracy is not just the right to vote, it is the right to live in dignity,” wrote the Canadian author and social activist Naomi Klein. Considering the current global situation, her words seem more relevant than ever. 

Trump questioned the results of the U.S. elections even before becoming President. Brazil’s Bolsonaro has declared a violent campaign against almost everyone - Blacks, Jews, Muslims, LGBTQAI, indigenous people, women, and, of course, the Amazon rainforest. Italy’s Matteo Salvini has vowed “I’ll be back” in the words of Schwarzenegger’s Terminator, while threatening the EU and labelling the new government as “traitors”. UK’s Boris Johnson used an archaic law to prorogue (suspend) his parliament, which he now threatens to do again, in order to push through a no-deal Brexit.  

All these leaders, and others across the globe, are threatening the mere existence of the western model of democracy, and are encouraging a takeover of the democratic system by the disenfranchised, uneducated, and often underpaid masses, whose frustration makes them susceptible to populist and hateful ring-wing rhetoric.  

Many suspect that Israel´s premier, Benjamin Netanyahu, well-known by his nickname Bibi, who could be regarded as the ultra-smart and vicious forerunner of the above mentioned bunch of right-wing-populist world-leaders, has pushed for the absurdity of another national elections within five months only in order to save his corrupted skin. 

In its short history, Israel has never seen such political turmoil as it sees these days. 

In the April 2019 general elections, Benjamin Netanyahu and his allied right-wing and religious parties came out with an advantage. Nevertheless, Netanyahu failed to form a coalition after losing the support of his former defense minister, Avigdor Lieberman, a bullish Russian immigrant, who did not want to succumb to the demands of the religious parties since his own mini-party is the voice of nationalist, anti-Arab, and, above all, scular immigrants from the former Soviet Union.  

The centrist Kachol-Lavan (‘blue and white’, as are the Israeli flag colours), which emerged as the second-biggest party in the elections, demanded that Netanyahu resign and prove his innocence by facing the three different criminal cases of corruption pending against him. Under such circumstances, Kachol-Lavan would have had a chance to form a strong and stable right-centrist government with the party of Bibi, The Likud. Instead of taking this responsible step, however, Netanyahu forced parliament to dissolve and announced a costly repeat election. 

Clearly, Netanyahu wants to form a far-right government, and pass legislation (dubbed “the French law” by the Israeli press) that would prohibit the pressing of criminal charges against an acting Prime Minister. In Netanyahu’s own war of political survival ‘all means are kosher’, even the disruption of Israeli democracy. 

The question arises - is Benny Gantz, Netanyahu’s nemesis and the leader of Kachol Lavan, only a moderate version of his opponent? The average voter from the anti-Bibi-camp sees Netanyahu as a corrupt master of incitement, and perceives Gantz as a decent and honest leader. The rivalry between the two is more reminiscent of the animosity between Trump and John McCain rather than Trump and, say, Bernie Sanders. And what about Israel’s real problems like the occupation of Palestinian lands and people? Domestic politics in Israel has lurched so far to the right that the fate of millions of Palestinians under Israeli military control has all but disappeared from election campaigns. Nobody cares! 

If that sound gloomy, let’s wait and see if the far-right Otzma Yehudit (Jewish Power) party, led by the extremist activists Itamar Ben Gevir and Baruch Marzel, will find themselves members of the next Netanyahu government. They stand in the tradition of Meir Kahana, a charismatic religious-nationalist leader, who was killed in New-York in 1990 by one of the first Al-Quaida Terrorists. His ideological approach did not want Zionism and democracy to intermingle, since he believed Jews ought to rule the Holy Land. Kahana’s party was outlawed in 1988 by the Israeli supreme court as a racist and anti-constitutional one. 

In his new book “On Tyranny: twenty lessons from the 20th century”, Yale’s historian Timothy Snyder argues that we must learn from the horrors of the past if we want to protect our democracies. 

Snyder gives us a clear warning of the grave danger we are facing now. He reminds the reader of just how quickly unacceptable behaviour becomes normalised under a fascist tyranny, and how it has already happened in Trump’s America. 

Snyder writes a guide on how to combat the rise of tyranny, suggesting we start with our use of language, and pointing out the dangers in Trump rhetoric’s of post truth.  “Be kind to our language. Avoid pronouncing the phrases everyone else does. Think up your own way of speaking, even if only to convey that thing you think everyone else is saying. Make an effort to separate yourself from the internet. Read books,” writes Snyder.  

Up until three years ago, we believed that we were living in a normal world. We had Obama, Holland, and Merkel; western democracy was taken for granted. This is not the case anymore. It is time to wake up before it is too late. 

Reinhold Niebuhr, the most influential American theologian of the 20th century, wrote in 1944 that "Man's capacity for justice makes democracy possible; but man's inclination to injustice makes democracy necessary.”      

Image: World Economic Forum via Flickr.

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