Moving beyond the politics of fear

August 24, 2019 20:37
3 minute read.
An aide whispers to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, with Moshe Kahlon in the foreground

An aide whispers to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, with Moshe Kahlon in the foreground, at a cabinet meeting, December 9th, 2018. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)

Benjamin Netanyahu is a master of the politics of fear. With Israeli elections less than a month away, he proudly asserts that only he is capable of providing Israel with security while any other candidate would bring the country to ruin. He has somehow managed to convince many Israelis that the rival Blue and White Party, led by three former IDF chiefs of staff, would not be able to protect the country although its leaders have dedicated their lives to this very purpose.

In one of Netanyahu’s recent election promos, there is an incoming call from Trump. “Who do you want to answer this call?” asks a voice. “This guy?” A clip shows Blue and White’s Yair Lapid stumbling over a word in English, “Or Netanyahu?” Netanyahu is then shown shaking hands with Putin and Trump to upbeat music. The message is clear: Netanyahu plays with the big boys, or as one of his election slogans puts it, “He is in a different league.” Everyone else would at best embarrass Israel and at worst bring disaster.

This strategy is not unique to Netanyahu. Trump is also a fan of rallying his base with warnings of ominous security threats such as criminal caravans charging the border. But Israelis are particularly susceptible to this fear-based election strategy because it plays into the country’s national psyche. With the legacy of the Holocaust and the national mantra of “Never Again,” the politics of fear focusing on real or perceived threats as a tool to rally the population around the flag remain effective time after time.

To be clear – Israel’s security threats are not imaginary. At the same time, however, its international standing has arguably never been better. Israel has strong intelligence and security forces, ever warming relations with Arab countries (especially among the Gulf states), and its peace treaties with Jordan and Egypt have withstood the tumults of the Arab Spring. And yet the confident proud tzabar, the New Jew who Zionism sought to create, is very afraid. Netanyahu has masterfully used this to his advantage. As one article after his 2015 election victory explained: “When every tunnel is an existential threat and every centrifuge a Holocaust, Israelis need Benjamin Netanyahu.”

This near single-minded focus on security obscures the underlying issue this election actually revolves around: what kind of society Israel wants to be. For Israel’s founding fathers, Zionism was much more than a national rescue mission for the Jewish people. David Ben-Gurion and his compatriots regarded social justice, solidarity and equality as equally important core values of Zionism. But attempts to focus on creating a better society at home have been drowned out by the politics of fear.

Israel today faces multiple domestic crises, including inequality, housing, a crumbling public healthcare system, racism and corruption. According to the international GINI index, Israel is consistently one of the most unequal countries in the OECD, placing at the bottom of the pack with countries such as the United States and Turkey. The cost of housing in Israel is 20-25% higher than in other OECD countries, and the prospect of purchasing an apartment has become a fantasy for many young couples. As a result, Israel is facing increasing brain drain. According to the Health Ministry, Israel has reached a three-decade low in the ratio of hospital beds to population with 1.796 per 1,000 people while the OECD average is twice as high. Racism remains a problem, too. The latest flare up occurred earlier this summer when Ethiopians took to the streets after the shooting of an unarmed Ethiopian teenager.

Moreover, it seems that many Israelis have accepted corruption as a fact of life. According to Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index (2018), Israel ranks in 34th place behind countries such as Qatar and Uruguay. Four current cabinet members are facing pending corruption charges, including Netanyahu himself, who faces multiple corruption cases.

In the middle of these pressing internal crises, Netanyahu has dragged the country into unnecessary and costly elections. Understandably, voters are fatigued by the prospect of heading to the polls yet again. But these elections matter and this is no time for apathy. Voters must demand answers from the parties on the burning domestic issues which will define Israeli society in the years to come. The politics of fear distract from the very essence of Zionism – the founders did not just want to survive, as Jews had for 2,000 years. They wanted to live honorably in a country they could be proud of.

The writer is an Israeli undergraduate student at Stanford University and the 2019 recipient of the George and Charlotte Shultz Fellowship in Modern Israel Studies.

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