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Netanyahu and Populism

By: Jonah Kaufman-Cohen

There is little doubt that our current political moment is a moment of populism. Populism, once a movement on the fringe, has been swept to power in countries across the world. Under Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel has joined this growing roster. Israel is ripe for populism in many ways. It is a country trapped in a generations-old conflict and surrounded on all sides by hostile powers. It rules over a large repressed group. The country is diverse and has known nothing but democracy. Taken together, these factors mean that Israelis expect their government to follow the will of the people; however, the populist tactics and rhetoric of Netanyahu’s government seek to limit who Israelis see as “the people.” This expectation of full representation for a limited group is easily recognizable as a populist impulse. Such an impulse has been exploited by Netanyahu throughout his long tenure in office. Netanyahu is exploiting Israel’s history of conflict in order to replace its liberal democracy with a populist one in which only Netanyahu’s supporters are given rights and privileges while his opponents are branded as enemies.

Part of Netanyahu’s populist strategy involves reshaping Israeli economic policy to support his constituents at the expense of his opponents. In this way, Netanyahu has shifted economic assistance away from the state and into the hands of the governing party. During the first decades of Israeli history, the country was fairly socialist economically. Under the Labor Party, much of the Israeli economy was conducted collectively. In the 1980s, the Likud Party gained power and began to restructure Israel’s economy along neoliberal lines. Netanyahu is the inheritor of his party’s neoliberal economic philosophy, yet he has put a decidedly populist spin on it. Julius Rogenhofer and Ayala Panievsky argue that Netanyahu’s economic strategy is essentially to create a welfare state for his supporters, namely the settlers, while pursuing neoliberal policies for the rest of society. Netanyahu justifies his “neoliberal policies as taken on behalf of economically disadvantaged Jewish masses (i.e. the ‘people’) and as revenge against the ‘corrupt’ public sector, workers’ unions and the welfare state.” This involves a populist redefinition of the people. Netanyahu is excluding unions and the public sector from the definition of “the people.” He even went so far as to depict unionists and public broadcasters as united with Hamas as enemies of the people in a 2015 campaign ad. This plays into the wider narrative Netanyahu spins about the left. He paints them as unpatriotic and more sensitive to the needs of the Palestinians than to Israelis. This makes Netanyahu’s domestic opposition into traitors in the eyes of his supporters. Furthermore, Netanyahu accuses the opposition of being an economic burden to “true” Israelis. This falls into the populist paradigm of protectionism asserted by Rogers Brubaker.

“Protectionism” here means protecting the perceived majority from either a more powerful or weaker minority. In this case, it is both. Netanyahu claims to be protecting the masses from both the waste of the elites and the burden of the poor. Rogenhofer and Panievsky assert that “the increased economic disenfranchisement of the ‘people’s enemies’ and the conflation of the government with the state undermine liberal democratic aspirations.” Netanyahu has redefined Israeli economic policy from one that is guided by the perceived best interests of the state to one that is structured to favor the best interests of his party.

Even while Netanyahu pursues a neoliberal agenda for most of the country, he is building a welfare state in the settlements and rewarding his supporters economically. Likud aid bills have explicitly and unabashedly rewarded constituencies that voted for them. They justify these acts of blatant favoritism as a form of gratitude. The settler movement is a core source of support for Likud. Surrounded in often hostile territory, the settlers are entirely economically dependent on Israel. If Netanyahu were to apply the same neoliberal stance to the settlements that he applies within the pre-1967 borders, the settlements would collapse economically, and he would lose their vital support. Thus, Netanyahu has formed a clientelist relationship with this small yet vocal minority of Israelis. This type of favoritism that ties economic aid to support for the party “replaces rights-based welfare services and ostensibly impartial state institutions with a more immediate and openly partisan relationship with the populist leader.” This replacement of government services with a more personalized model reflects Brubaker’s assertion that populism is anti-institutional. It seeks to replace the mutually agreed upon rules of governance with a winner-take-all mentality in which leaders can pursue policies that only benefit their voters without regard for the rest of the state.

Just as Netanyahu seeks to divide Israelis along economic lines, so too does he seek to divide them along religious lines. Netanyahu embraces a definition of Israel that excludes all non-Jews. By claiming that Israel is first and foremost a Jewish State he furthers his claims that he is the reflection of the true will of the people and that any alternative version is a false one because he claims to represent Israel’s Jews rather than its Arab population. One of Netanyahu’s most drastic steps along the path of division was supporting the Nation State Law. Israel has no written constitution. Instead it has a set of basic laws that guide all other laws. These laws state that Israel is a country which recognizes the equality of its citizens regardless of religion. However, in 2018 the Nation State Law amended these basic laws. The law “formally elevates Jewish collective rights over individual political rights conferred as a matter of citizenship, thereby departing from Israel’s liberal-democratic aspirations and shifting towards a majoritarian conception of democracy.” Thus, the duty of the government of Israel is no longer to protect the rights of all its citizens but rather to further the interests of the Jewish people. This law does not simply divide Jewish Israelis from other Israelis. It also serves as another attack on the perceived elite of the state who Netanyahu identifies as supporters of liberalism. Rogenhofer and Panievsky argue that “by overtly refusing to assert the democratic equality of all citizens, the Likud and its allies framed the law as pushing back against the alleged ‘liberal supremacy’ of judicially affirmed individual rights that are defended by an ‘elitist liberal minority’ against the ‘people.’” This serves as a further example of Netanyahu’s protectionism. All in all, the Nation State Law redefines who an Israeli is on two levels. It limits political recognition to Jews but also to those who share Netanyahu’s illiberal views.

Like all forms of populism, Netanyahu’s is based on the premise that he and his supporters are morally right and those who oppose him are morally wrong. In order to justify this binary view of the world, Netanyahu exploits both Israel’s history of conflict and the history of the Jewish people in general. Jonathan Leslie writes that “for Netanyahu, the memory of the Holocaust is not a fact-based historical record, but a permanent state of being.” Netanyahu does not believe that the foundation of the State of Israel or any of its subsequent military victories rendered the Jews safe. Hand in hand with this view of Jews as perpetual victims comes Netanyahu’s messianic vision of himself as the only person who will do what it takes to safeguard Jewish civilization. This imperative trumps any imperative to preserve liberal democracy. It can be used to silence critics because “annihilation is always just a moment away and the time to prepare is always now.” This fits perfectly into Brubaker’s argument that populism relies on the highly dramatized rhetoric of crisis to sustain itself. A liberal democracy can live and thrive in normalized environments; however, if a nation feels that it is in a perpetual state of siege, then paradoxically the environment is normally abnormal, and abnormal times justify abnormal measures. In this way, Netanyahu’s populism is well suited to Israel’s conception of itself as a state surrounded by enemies. Should peace break out, Netanyahu’s message would likely lose much of its appeal. However, as long as Israel remains mired in conflict, Netanyahu’s messianic message will be difficult to combat. Small wonder then that Netanyahu seems entirely disinterested in peace.

Netanyahu’s four terms in office have placed populism at the center of Israel’s politics. It has affected how the state pursues its economic policy, defines its people, and views its ongoing conflict. Netanyahu consistently employs divisive rhetoric to separate “the people” from their enemies. These enemies are the Arabs of Palestine and Israel’s neighbors who Netanyahu claims are an existential threat to the Jewish people, but they are also Netanyahu’s liberal opposition who he portrays as collaborators willing to side with the Arabs over the Jews. Netanyahu wields these divisions in order to justify favoritism towards his supporters and his attempts to reshape Israel’s Basic Laws and national vision. This tide is worrisome but not yet irreversible. Israel’s free press and independent judiciary may yet halt Netanyahu before the damage he has done becomes irreversible. However, if they do not, then Israel will continue to slip further and further into the depths of illiberal democracy.

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