Netanyahu, The Real Master Of Populism

Right-wing populists are advancing in every corner of the world, but let's not forget the Israeli prime minister who has been in power for years. Here's his formula.

Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem in December 2015
Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem in December 2015
Gil Yaron

TEL AVIV — After 2,793 days, Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu now stands as the longest consecutively serving leader since the modern state's founding in 1948. Following his third victorious election, he is now due to remain in office until at least July, 19, 2019.

So what is his recipe for success? The question has become ever more relevant as seemingly everywhere — from the U.S., Britain and France, to Austria, Germany, Hungary and the Philippines — politicians are on the rise who, like Netanyahu, have mastered the fine art of populism.

Some of these people see a natural ally in Netanyahu and seek to get closer to the Jewish State to avoid the blemish of anti-Semitism. Meanwhile, all can learn from the Israeli leader's example that rhetoric alone is not enough to stay in power for such a long time. Because the master of populism is much more than just an accomplished orator.

His election victories are, as a matter of fact, an absolute mystery. Many of his closest Western political partners are hostile towards him, even more so than they were towards his predecessors. At home, he has been adept at swaying from one stance to another, making U-turns on virtually every matter of importance: from the military draft requirement for ultra-Orthodox Jews, West Bank settlements or any number of issues linked to national security and the economy.

Much of the economic, military and media elite of Israel despise him. They fear the anti-democratic tendencies of Netanyahu's supporters, who undermine the authority of the Supreme Court and seek to censor cultural freedoms. When he declared that Israel's Arab voters were going to come out in droves to dispose of him was not only thinly veiled racism but also simply wrong.

Still, he is neither a real racist nor a convinced ideologue, which helps explain his weak support on the right. After all, Netanyahu gave part of the holy city of Hebron to the Palestinians during his first term in office. He was also the only prime minister to halt construction on the West Bank for a full 10 month period, and is now still allowing fewer settlements than any of his predecessors. Netanyahu is the only chairman of the center-right Likud who officially accepted the two-state solution. Among hard-line defenders of the idea of a Greater Israel he is known as a spineless opportunist.

Indeed, he has never practiced unconditional loyalty, ready to drop political protégés as soon as they build up a power base of their own. His inner circle is constantly shocked to the core by the firing of close confidantes, who, later on become his most committed enemies, including several top Israeli generals.

Netanyahu lighting Hanuka candles with his family in 1996 — Photo: OHAYON AVI/Government Press Office

Still, Netanyahu wins election after election. And this goes beyond his vibrant baritone, or his telegenic and self-confidence and memorable sound bites. He also knows just the right way to stoke the emotions that have driven politics in Israel for years: jealously and anger. That is ultimately his greatest tool as a populist.

Against the elite

Israel has, since its inception, been divided into at least two factions. The leftist Ashkenazi, Jews who immigrated to Israel from all over Europe, where they formed the elite, and the conservative Mizrahi, Jews whose parents are from the Arabic states and who, ever since the 1970s, have been trying to catch up.

Netanyahu, who grew up abroad in a right-wing family, was always considered an outsider by the ruling elite. So even while he smokes expensive cigars and wears tailor-made suits, he is still perceived as the underdog, who "wants to show those on top." He portrays the amorphous "people" as the fountain of virtue in the face of an out-of-touch elected few. His "we" is exclusive, bypassing the elite and enemies of the state to speak straight to the masses.

And then there is his ability to exploit the fear factory, in a country whose very existence has been threatened since its very inception. Israel's longstanding problems have become global problems over the course of the last decade. Netanyahu plays the cosmopolitan elites, who profit from free trade, open borders and competition, against the general population, who feel shut out from the newfound global wealth. All of this in the face of the existential threat of Islamic terrorism, which the world has come to know as well.

Still, there are marked differences between Netanyahu and other right-wing populists. Israel has done well under Netanyahu. Over the past two years, Gaza has been calmer than it has been in two decades. The border to Lebanon is also quiet — another historic feat. When the rest of the world was plunged into financial crisis in 2008, Israel remained stable, and widespread unemployment was avoided. And the current government has actually taken more steps than its predecessors to integrate Arab Israelis economically as well as socially. The dream of advancement is a realistic one for everyone.

Netanyahu's rhetoric may be that of a populist, his world view may be Manichean and his strategies may be devoid of principles and initiative. But contrary to Donald Trump, he has experience in how to lead a state. Despite all the criticism, Israel has done very well in the last decade. Because, behind the mask of the populist, you will find Israel's most experienced diplomat and cunning politician, who keeps the country's pot boiling with his proven administrative skills and successful economic policies. So, when he does win an election, it is the electorate thanking him for his service.

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