Benjamin Netanyahu, Likud and the uncertain fate of Israel’s democracy

Benjamin Netanyahu, Prime Minister of Israel, August 20, 2019.

Right-wing populism beyond the West

This series profiles electorally successful right-wing populists outside the widely studied contexts of Europe and the Americas. We commence with empirical studies of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Narendra Modi and Benjamin Netanyahu. In a next step, we probe the commonalities and discontinuities of these three populist leaders and reflect on the global phenomenon of right-wing populism and its relationship with processes of democratisation and democratic backsliding. These commentaries are based on research published by the authors in Democratization, Volume 27, No. 8 (2020), available at https://doi.org/10.1080/13510347.2020.1795135.

By Ayala Panievsky* & Julius Maximilian Rogenhofer

Ever since the creation of the state of Israel in 1948, its governments have proudly adopted the self-characterisation as “the only democracy in the Middle East”. Israel’s close relationship with the United States leverages this presumption. Even Israel’s decades-long occupation of almost 5 million Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip has not erased its image as the international community’s strongest ally in a dangerous region. Israel is considered closer to meeting the criteria of liberal democracy than either Turkey or India. Yet, its democratic institutions confront an intensifying onslaught by Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s Prime Minister for over a decade.[1] In this commentary we explore the economic, nationalist and media dimensions of Netanyahu’s right-wing populist strategy and explain what makes it different – but also similar to – the one used by his populist counterparts.

Netanyahu, famous for his fierce advocacy of a “free market”, shares Erdogan and Modi’s neoliberal agenda. Following the liberalisation of Israel’s economy during the 1980s, Netanyahu’s reforms as Minister of Treasury in the early 2000sdismantled what was once a social-democratic welfare state. Combining deregulation, tax reductions and privatisation of public services, Netanyahu – like Erdogan and Modi – undermined rights-based welfare services and took an axe to public sector pay.[2] Netanyahu framed his neoliberal agenda as a revenge against the “elites”: Public sector employees, workers’ unions and the welfare state were portrayed as incompetent and corrupt burdens on Israel’s economy and as part of the anti-patriotic left, which favours the enemies of the state over the “people”. During the 2015 elections his Likud Party aired television ads showcasing a fictional support group meeting where unionists, broadcasters and Hamas terrorists comfort one another. When Netanyahu enters the frame, the slogan “It is Us or Them” – the prime motto of divisive populism – appears (Ynet News, 17 March 2015).

Alongside the privatised economy within the borders of Israel, Netanyahu helped establish a de facto welfare state within the Jewish settlements inside the occupied West Bank.[3] Settler organisations are generously supported by the government and integrated into the public education system as well as Israel’s Defence Forces. Netanyahu’s exceptional support for these groups nurtures a clientelist system, shielding settlers from the unpleasant consequences of his government’s economic policies. A similar compensation mechanism also protects another one of Netanyahu’s longstanding political allies – the orthodox community. 

As Covid-19 poses new economic challenges for Israel, Netanyahu faced persistent and heated demonstrations across the country, which alleged corruption and criticised his handling of the health emergency. Under intense public pressure, Netanyahu has granted limited governmental support for Israeli citizens who suffer from recurring lockdowns. His worldview, however, has remained fiercely neoliberal: When asked in a televised interview why his government chose not to better compensate Israelis for their financial losses, Netanyahu proudly cited Milton Friedman to suggest that greater governmental support would endanger the economy (Davar, 22 March 2020).

Voting in Israel tends to prioritise issues of national security and identity above the economy. Like the AKP and the BJP, the Likud uses inclusion within the “people” to nurture support among disadvantaged Jewish voters.[4] This form of symbolic representation is underpinned by resentment towards the “enemies of the people”, defined broadly to includeminorities, political opponents and democratic institutions. The language used by Netanyahu to justify his politics has both religious and nationalistic overtones, with the former often masking the latter.[5] While Erdogan self-identifies as a leader of the Islamic world, Netanyahu presents himself as speaking on behalf of the “Jewish people” (Haaretz, 12 February 2015). This conflation of Israel’s government with Jewishness disregards that the vast majority of the Jewish people neither live nor vote in Israel and that 25 percent of Israel’s citizens are non-Jewish – mostly Israeli Arabs. Jewish citizens also risk exclusion from the “real people” – if they oppose Netanyahu’s government.

The hotly contested intersections of religion, ethnicity and nationhood in Israel[6] and the bleeding conflict with the Palestinians enable Netanyahu to exclude Arab citizens from Israeli society, labelling them “collaborators” of the Palestinians – a “Trojan horse” with double loyalties. Netanyahu’s ethnoreligious sectarianism appeared in Israel’s 2018 Nation State Law,[7] which formally elevates Jewish collective rights over those of Israeli Arabs. If it is not struck down by the supreme court, this Nation State Law will “legitimise the use of Jewishness as a criterion to discriminate against the Arabs and prefer Jews in labour, housing, education and culture”,[8] thereby making religious minorities in Israel de facto second-class citizens. Netanyahu’s Likud invoked this Nation State Law to push-back against the alleged “liberal supremacy” of individual rights that are defended by an “elitist liberal minority” against the “people” (SWP Comment, October 2018). 

Such discourses question the legitimacy of Netanyahu’s political opponents on the left, who – albeit Jewish – are condemned for siding with non-Jewish minorities, including Israeli Arabs and African asylum seekers. Netanyahu associates the Israeli left with hostile forces who supposedly conspire against Israel, using left-wing activists as their pawns. Thus, as Levi and Agmon note, contemporary right-wing populism in Israel does not merely exclude minorities, it uses minorities to exclude the left from the “real people.”[9]

Netanyahu’s assault on the “enemies of the people” encompasses large swathes of Israel’s mainstream media. Like Modi, Netanyahu leverages social media to bypass journalists, blaming them for deceiving the public, siding with Israel’s enemies and plotting to take him down (The New York Times, 9 August 2017). Netanyahu’s 2019 election campaign targeted high-profile journalists, asking the public to vote against them (Haaretz, 20 January 2019). Netanyahu’s true rival and, thus, the “people’s” rival, was the press. Beyond this inciteful rhetoric, Netanyahu – like Erdogan and Modi –used executive power to intimidate journalists, capture state-owned media and weaken private news outlets.[10]Implementing this strategy entailed a variant of Erdogan’s media-capture strategy, namely the cultivation of alternative, loyalist media outlets.[11] Israel’s only free daily “Israel Today” is often referred to by its nickname “Bibiton” (Netanyahu’s newspaper). Netanyahu’s attempts to gain favourable media coverage have also entangled him in two corruption scandals, in which he sought to trade regulatory benefits for positive news coverage (The Times of Israel, 16 May 2019).

Yet, while Netanyahu defames broadcasters for allegedly ‘employing fans of terrorists’ and ‘persecuting Israel’s soldiers’, he has not followed Erdogan and Modi in arresting journalists or forcing television blackouts. Such acts are, as yet, considered inconceivable in the Israeli context. Earlier this year, when the Likud shared a video that called for the arrest of one of Netanyahu’s greatest critics, the investigative journalist Raviv Druker – public turmoil erupted, and Netanyahu was pressured to take down and renounce the video (The Times of Israel, 11 June 2020). This incident demonstrates that albeit weakened, certain democratic institutions – including the press – still constrain Netanyahu’s populist agenda. 

Nonetheless, Israel has faced several worrying developments: First, as Netanyahu’s supporters target the supreme court as the next “enemy of the people”, the checks-and-balances that currently restrict Netanyahu may dwindle. A recent investigative report documents how Netanyahu’s supporters were encouraged to dig dirt on family members of judges in Netanyahu’s own court cases (Haaretz, 25 December 2020)

Second, Israel is heading towards its fourth national election next year. The previous three cycles ended with a tie between the pro- and anti- Netanyahu blocs. Ultimately, Netanyahu and his main centre-left contender Benny Gantz formed a joint government under the premise of delivering “unity” in face of Covid-19. Now, the main contender to Netanyahu’s rule is, for the first time, likely to be another right-wing party led by Gideon Saar – a former Likud politician. He, too, has been labelled a “lefty” by Netanyahu’s supporters, demonstrating how fluid the boundaries of “the real people” have become. Although the Israeli people have suffered greatly from Netanyahu’s neoliberal policies and his powerful incitement against “elites” and minorities, they are likely to grant Netanyahu another term in office. If Netanyahu does win the 2021 election, the coming years are likely to showcase an amplified version of his existing populist playbook. The inertia of Israel’s democratic institutions will determine whether this period will bring Israel closer to India and Turkey or spell a recovery from a decade of divisive populism and democratic backsliding. 


(*) Ayala Panievsky is a Gates-Cambridge Ph.D. candidate at the University of Cambridge. Her work explores the ever-changing relationship between media and politics in contemporary democracies, and in particular, the encounter between mainstream media and political extremism in the age of social media and big data.


References

[1] Mordechay, Nadiv, and Yaniv Roznai. (2017). “A Jewish and (Declining) Democratic State? Constitutional Retrogression in Israel.” Maryland Law Review. 77, no. 1: 244–270.

[2] Filc, Dani. (2010). The Political Right in Israel: Different Faces of Jewish Populism. Routledge Studies on the Arab-Israeli Conflict 7. New York: Routledge.

[3] Gutwein, Daniel. (2017). “The Settlements and the Relationship Between Privatization and the Occupation Normalizing Occupation.” In: Normalizing Occupation: The Politics of Everyday Life in the West Bank Settlements. Edited by Ariel Handel, Marco Allegra and Erez Maggor, 21–33. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

[4] Filc, Dani. (2010). The Political Right in Israel: Different Faces of Jewish Populism. Routledge Studies on the Arab-Israeli Conflict 7. New York: Routledge.

[5] Talshir, Gayil. (2018). “Populist Rightwing Ideological Exposition: Netanyahu’s Regime as a Case in Point.” Advances in Applied Sociology. 8, no. 04: 329–349.

[6] Wallach, Yair. (2016). “Jewish Nationalism: On the (Im)Possibility of Muslim Jews.” In: The Routledge Handbook of Muslim-Jewish Relations. Edited by Josef Meri. Routledge. https://doi.org/10.4324/9781315675787.

[7] — (2018). Basic Law: Israel – The Nation State of the Jewish People https://knesset.gov.il/laws/special/eng/BasicLawNationState.pdf

[8] Gutwien, Daniel. (2017). “The Settlements and the Relationship Between Privatization and the Occupation Normalizing Occupation.” In: Normalizing Occupation: The Politics of Everyday Life in the West Bank Settlements. Edited by Ariel Handel, Marco Allegra and Erez Maggor, 21–33. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

[9] Levi, Yonatan and Shai Agmon. (2020). “Beyond Culture and Economy: Israel’s Security-Driven Populism, Contemporary Politics.” Contemporary Politics. DOI: 10.1080/13569775.2020.1864163 

[10] Peri, Yoram. (2004). Telepopulism: Media and Politics in Israel. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

[11] Pfeffer, Anshel. (2018). Bibi: The Turbulent Life and Times of Benjamin Netanyahu. London: Hurst & Company.

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