Offering profound insights into the dynamics of Israeli politics and the evolving role of radical right-wing populism in the country, Professor Dani Filc of Ben Gurion University confidently asserts that the era of Benjamin Netanyahu is on the verge of conclusion. However, he also underscores that the influence of “clerical fascism” in Israel is poised to persist.
Interview by Selcuk Gultasli
In an exclusive interview with the European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS), Professor Dani Filc, a distinguished scholar in the Department of Politics and Government at Ben Gurion University in the Negev, confidently asserts that the era of Benjamin Netanyahu, a longstanding figure in Israeli politics, is on the verge of conclusion. However, he also underscores that the influence of clerical fascism is poised to persist.
Offering profound insights into the dynamics of Israeli politics and the evolving role of radical right-wing populism, the interview delves into the historical transformation of the ruling Likud. From its roots as a radical right vanguard to its current status as a sui generis form of right-wing populism, Likud’s evolution is explored. The discussion tracks Likud’s inclusive elements and examines the ideological shifts that occurred during Netanyahu’s tenure.
Addressing the intersection of populism with identity politics, Professor Filc highlights the dangerous chain of equivalencies used to demonize Israeli Arabs and the instrumental use of religion to differentiate the “in-group” and the “out-group.” Professor Filc also provides insights into Israel’s global alliances, pointing out the alliance with European far-right parties. Filc touches on the evolution of Likud under Netanyahu and its alignment with illiberal, right-wing populist movements in Europe.
Asserting that the ongoing war in Gaza signals the end of Netanyahu’s dominance in Israeli politics, Professor Filc predicts that “with the conclusion of the war in Gaza, Netanyahu will fall, leading to the abandonment of the judicial reform.” However, he expresses concerns about the lasting impact of the ongoing conflict on populist movements and calls for a just peace in the Middle East, highlighting potential dangers associated with civilizational populism or a clash of civilizations.
In this comprehensive interview, Professor Filc shares invaluable insights into the intricate landscape of Israeli politics, the evolution of populism, and the challenges posed by religious and right-wing populist movements in the country.
Here is the transcription of the interview with Professor Dani Filc with minor edits.
How has populism manifested in Israeli politics historically, and are there specific events or periods that stand out? Can you provide insights into the historical roots and evolution of the radical right in Israel?
I think the first populist moment was when Menachem Begin, who was the then-leader of the Herut Party, the main party of the coalition, became the Likud party, which is the party now in government. Sometime in the early to mid-1950s, Begin led a transformation of the Likud party from a radical right, a vanguard type of party to a populist party. This process was relatively a prolonged one, starting in the mid-50s and reaching its peak when Likud arrived in government in 1977, winning the elections against the Labor party, which had been in government from 1948 until 1977.
Likud, under Menachem Begin’s leadership, was a kind of sui generis type of populism. Why? It was a nationalist party with right-wing views on Israel, a commitment to the idea of Greater Israel, and a denial of the existence of a Palestinian people or a Palestinian state. However, it also had inclusive elements, especially for Mizrahi Jews (Jews from Arab countries). Likud was symbolically inclusive, politically inclusive, and had some material inclusion measures, particularly in areas like housing and education for Oriental Jews. Mizrahi Jews became the central leaders within Likud, ministers, members of the Knesset in a way, and Oriental Jews also became part of the Likud. There were some measures that included Oriental Jews and improved their material conditions. Although there is a kind of commonality between left-wing populism and inclusive populism, and right-wing populism and exclusionary populism, Likud was not more exclusionary than the Labor Party that preceded it while it has not been inclusive towards Israeli-Palestinian citizens. So, Likud’s populism was not stereotypical, and it had some inclusive characteristics, making it a sui generis form of right-wing populism.
Likud Transformed into Extreme Radical Right-wing Populism
On the ideological front, despite Takis Papas define populism as anti-liberalism, Likud under Begin was not anti-liberal. It adopted conservative liberal views, especially in the relationship between judicial power and the executive or legislative power. As people like Ernesto Laclau and Margaret Canovan described, populist ideologies are often framed as against the hegemonic ideology, the ideology of the power, and since the Labor Party in power held socialist rhetoric, Likud’s adoption of a more liberal rhetoric can be seen as opposition to the then-elites or at least to their rhetoric. This situation made Likud under Begin a kind of sui generis populist party.
With Begin’s departure from politics in 1982, Likud underwent a period of transition, with internal conflicts between the more populist wing and the more conservative liberal wing. This lasted until 1992, when Netanyahu became the Likud leader. Between 1992 and 2006, Netanyahu aimed to make Likud a near-conservative party as Ronald Reagan’s or George W. Bush’s Republican Party with radical neoliberal, nationalist, and realistic in international politics and culturally conservative characteristics. When he was replaced by Ariel Sharon as leader of the Likud and he was Sharon’s minister of finance, he performed more radical neoliberal transformations within Israel.
When Sharon split from Likud in the 2006 elections, the Netanyahu-Sharon split occurred because Sharon supported a one-sided retreat from the Gaza strip without an agreement. Netanyahu opposed Sharon on this issue. Netanyahu became the chairperson of Likud once again, and in the 2006 elections, Likud, led by Netanyahu, obtained only 12 seats in the Knesset, which was 10 percent of the vote. These were the worst elections for Likud since the elections to the second Knesset in the early 1950s.
In my view, Netanyahu understood the limits of the Neo-con project in Israel, leading him to shift towards a radical right exclusionary populist party. However, he wasn’t the pioneer of radical right populism in Israel. The pioneer was Avigdor Levi Lieberman, a former Likud member. When Netanyahu was elected chairperson of Likud in 1992, he appointed Lieberman as the CEO of Likud, the principal executive. In 1999, Lieberman split from Likud and created a party called “Yisrael Beiteinu (Israel Our Home),” which is a clear-cut exclusionary radical right-wing populist party. They even have observers in the radical right populist group in the European Parliament.
Eventually, Lieberman became the first politician with a clear exclusionary rhetoric and policy against Israeli Palestinians. He was also the first to assert that Israeli Palestinians posed a greater threat to Israel than the Palestinians in the occupied territories. Using populist rhetoric, he positioned himself as the voice of the people against the oligarchy. However, he clarified, “we are not anti-elitists because elites are good, but there is not an elite. There is an oligarchy, and we are anti-oligarchic.”
Netanyahu also embraced that exclusionary rhetoric and approach, and their parties ran together in the 2013 elections. Despite Netanyahu’s ability to build a coalition, the merger was not successful. Lieberman eventually split from the alliance. This marks the moment when Likud transformed into a radical right-wing populist party, even verging on extreme radical right-wing populism, with some members exhibiting characteristics almost akin to fascism.
Religion Is Instrumental for Likud
To what extent does populism in Israel intertwine with identity politics, particularly concerning issues such as nationality and religion (Jewishness)? Are there populist narratives that specifically target or resonate with certain social groups?
Okay, so for sure, nationalism is nativism as Cas Mudde calls them are very central element of Likud’s populism. The demonization of Israeli Arabs is achieved by creating a chain of equivalences that asserts ISIS is like Iran, Iran is like Hezbollah, Hezbollah is like Hamas, and Hamas is like the Palestinian Authority. The Palestinian Authority is then equated with Israeli Arabs, and Israeli Arabs are likened to the leftist traitors that support them. This chain of equivalencies places national identity at its core.
Regarding the role of religion, it is more instrumental. Most Likud members are traditionalist, observant Jews. However, they are not explicitly religious, and many do not wear a kippa to cover their heads. While they respect some religious mandates, they disregard others. Religion is primarily used functionally to distinguish between the “in-group” and the “out-group.” This is why Likud is much more tolerant in issues such as the LGBTQ community and women’s rights compared to orthodox religious parties.
How does the media landscape contribute to or counter populist narratives in Israeli politics? Have you identified any patterns in the use of media by populist and radical right figures?
They use social media due to the algorithm and the business model being highly conducive to supporting populist leaders and populist politicians. Social media supposedly enables a direct relationship between the leader and the people, eliminating the need for intermediary organizations such as political parties. It creates a clear distinction between “us” and “them.” The impact of social media is evident globally, from Trump in the US to other leaders. In this context, Netanyahu stands out as a master in the use of social media.
Israel started as a secular country and the Zionist movement strongly supported separation of church and state. Then religious populism gained ground and became so powerful today. What went wrong? How did religious populism become such a strong movement?
At the beginning of Zionism, there was a prominent socialist current. However, when the Labour Party did not succeed, or perhaps chose not to, in 1948 to establish a constitution that would formalize the separation between Church and State, things took a different turn. Due to their political alliance with the national Jewish religious party, decisions regarding the relationship between state and religion were postponed. Consequently, Israel does not recognize civil marriages and civil divorces. The religious establishment often dictates personal matters in many areas such as marriages or funerals. The state funds a national rabbi.
So, from the outset, there was no clear separation between the State and the church.
I believe populism, in terms of establishing a distinction between the in-group and the out-group, has a strong religious identity at its core. However, Likud’s populism is not strictly religious. There is a party called Shas, an ultra-orthodox party, which has exhibited even more pronounced populist characteristics in the past, though this is not the case for Likud. For instance, one of Likud’s prominent leaders is openly homosexual, illustrating that despite its strong core religious identity, Likud is not a religious party. It seems to use religion in an instrumental manner.
Radical Right Populists in Europe are Strong Allies to Likud
In the article you co-authored, ‘Israel’s Right-Wing Populists: The European Connection’, you argue: ‘The partnership between Netanyahu’s Israel and Orbán’s Hungary is indicative of the enormous change that Israel has undergone during Netanyahu’s era. Israel has become, much like Orbán’s Hungary, a right-wing, populist, illiberal powerhouse. And it is not above joining forces with a European far right with antisemitism in its lineage.’ How do you explain this enormous change, what are the dynamics of this change and how did Netanyahu achieve it?
I believe this change is part of a broader global shift marked by the rise of radical right populism in the US and Europe, which supports Likud’s Israel’s policies towards the Arab world. Notably, the Palestinian issue takes precedence over the problematic antisemitic past of many of these leaders. This holds true for figures such as Georgie Melonie and the fascist history of her party, as well as Jean Marie Le Pen and Marine Le Pen and the antisemitic past of the Front National. Considering Likud’s worldview and its current commitment to exclusionary radical right populism, it seems that radical right populists in Europe are strong allies to Likud. This alliance is especially evident in the close relationship between Poland’s PiS and Likud, despite the potential challenge posed by PiS’s revisionist stance on Poland’s attitudes during the Nazi regime. However, the focus appears to be more on the present than on the past.
As for the strength of Likud, its main supporters are the lower middle class, middle class, and upwardly mobile middle class, particularly among oriental Jews. The loyalty of these social groups to Likud can be explained by Likud serving as an instrument of social and political mobility for them. Likud has also evolved into a more populist party. Netanyahu, in particular, was willing to adopt more heterodox economic policies, deviating from his earlier radical neoliberal stance. Between 2009 and 2019, the decade during which Netanyahu held continuous power, there was a notable process of social mobility for these groups. The minimum wage increased by 38 percent, accumulated inflation was no more than 20 percent, and the Gini Index decreased in Israel for the first time since the mid-1980s. The two lower quintiles showed improvement compared to the higher quintiles. During this period, private consumption in Israel surpassed the average private consumption in OECD countries for the first time. From a security standpoint, the conflict remained relatively quiet, and economically, there was positive development for the social groups that constituted Netanyahu’s main support base.
Clerical Fascism Supports Colonization of Occupied Palestinian Territories
In the same article, you mention ‘the ongoing Israeli colonialism in the occupied territories.’ Do you see Israel as a colonizer? If so, what role does religious populism play in colonizing Palestinian lands?
The question is quite tricky in today’s context. I don’t think that the colonization process should encompass all of Israel, as some advocates of “free Palestine from the Jordan to the sea” claim. However, I do contend that the policies within the occupied territories reflect a colonizing approach, and there is a connection between this type of process and the rise of radical right populism, which is associated with the colonization process. Presently, the primary role in the settlement of the occupied Palestinian territories is not played by Likud as a radical right populist party, but rather by the radical religious right, which is not populist at all. They hold an avant-garde, and in many ways, an anti-democratic conception of populism. My understanding of populism is that it is inherently democratic. While it may support an illiberal form of democracy, it is not anti-democratic in my view. This is why fascism cannot be considered a form of populism; these are distinct phenomena. What is referred to as the religious Zionist party in Israel appears to be a form of religious fascism, and some scholars even characterize it as clerical fascism, providing significant support for the colonization of the occupied Palestinian territories.
In the same article, you underlined that ‘Netanyahu has turned to nativism and xenophobia, mostly in the form of Islamophobia.’ What does this Islamophobic populism mean for the Israeli Arabs and Palestinians?
For Israeli Arabs, it entailed the denial of their collective rights and the delegitimization of their political leadership. Netanyahu employed this tactic rhetorically multiple times. During the 2015 elections, he asserted, “Jews come to vote because the Israeli Arabs are coming by the hundreds in buses paid for by leftist NGOs.” This statement was made on election day. Between 2019 and 2021, there were four rounds of elections. In one of these rounds, Netanyahu and Likud advocated for the inclusion of cameras in voting booths to combat fraud. However, it was evident that this measure was targeted specifically against Israeli Arabs with the aim of reducing their voting percentage. This move backfired. In the subsequent round of elections, there was an attempt to mitigate this nativism, but it resurfaced with full force in the latest elections.
How do you explain the close relationship between Netanyahu’s Likud and the far-right populist parties in Europe like Vlaams Belang in Belgium or the Freedom Party in the Netherlands?
As mentioned earlier, Likud is currently a populist radical right party. Its messages closely mirror those of the Vlaams Belang and Freedom Party, and I see Islamophobia as essentially a replay of the traditional role that antisemitism played for the radical right in Europe. In many ways, they are like brothers in their promotion of Islamophobia. Islamophobia takes precedence over antisemitism. Given that Islamophobia seems to supersede and, in a way, legitimize their shared narrative.
What do you think about the fate of the so-called judicial reform being pushed by Netanyahu? Do you think the Israeli people will agree to it?
The proposed judicial reform has faced opposition for quite some time; as you may be aware, there were extensive protests against it, and the nation became divided following the massacre of October 7th. The ongoing war in Gaza seems to mark the end of Netanyahu’s dominance in Israeli politics. I hope for a swift resolution to the war, and I anticipate that with its end, Netanyahu will fall and leading to the abandonment of the judicial reform.
A Just Peace Is Crucial to Preventing Reemergence of Radical Right Ideologies
How does the current war with Hamas will impact the Populist movements in Israel? Some argue that the era of Netanyahu is about to end. Would you agree with that?
I believe Netanyahu’s era is coming to an end, but the influence of clerical fascism will likely persist. In Israel, as in many democratic countries, populism arises from the blind spots and a lack of self-criticism within liberalism, particularly due to its association with neoliberalism. My optimism is limited concerning a significant shift in liberal self-critique, especially as neoliberalism remains a potent factor contributing to the emergence of populism, specifically the populist radical right in Israel.
While Netanyahu may face setbacks, and there might be a temporary decline in the power of the populist radical right, I am concerned that, in the medium and long term, we may witness a resurgence of the radical right if there are no changes in socioeconomic policies. Additionally, a shift toward a just peace in the Middle East, considering the collective rights of both Israelis and Palestinians, is crucial to preventing the reemergence of radical right ideologies.
Do you believe that the recent conflict in Gaza could potentially trigger a wave of civilizational populism beyond Israel and Palestine, and even beyond MENA region? How would you characterize this wave: as civilizational populism or a clash of civilizations?
I do not categorize all right-wing ideologies as populist. My greater concern lies with the potential emergence of clerical fascism or fascism within right-wing populist movements. It’s important to note that clerical fascism or religious fundamentalism does not necessarily have to be populist, and its non-populist manifestation can be particularly dangerous. I sincerely hope for a swift resolution to the ongoing conflict, as it could prevent an escalation and a clash of civilizations that would only lead to more circles of death and destruction. Ending the war promptly is crucial, and it should be followed by a broader understanding that the only sustainable solution for Palestinians and Israelis, as well as the entire region, is an agreement that respects the right of self-determination and security of both peoples, while safeguarding their collective and individual rights and respect it.