Love him or hate him, Benjamin Netanyahu is the most internationally famous Israeli statesmen since David Ben-Gurion. That has less to do with his achievements or mishaps and more with the fact that he has ruled the country for years on end. It has long been claimed that Bibi wanted to “settle scores” with the mythological founder of Israel and surpass him in length of tenure as prime minister. Bibi has already done that. Now, as one political analyst jokingly wrote, his next goal is to surpass Queen Elizabeth II.
Indeed, it seems that Netanyahu is free from any serious political threats. All potential rivals in the Likud were either cowed or removed, and the remaining politicians in Israel’s ruling party compete in groveling before their leader. In the opposition, too, no one is yet perceived by the public as a serious alternative to Netanyahu. That has less to do with the respective qualities of opposition leaders, and more with Netanyahu’s length of tenure. He has been at the helm for so long, that all other contenders seem unqualified by definition. True, there are some legal cases pending against him, but Netanyahu has withstood numerous corruption scandals in the past.
Facing Netanyahu’s endless rule, desperate leftwing critics repeatedly summon the specter of fascism. Such critics often say that the extreme rhetoric of Netanyahu and his closest satraps, the incitement against the Arabs and the Left, the incessant talk of foreign conspiracies to undermine Israel, as well as the attempts to bypass judicial review, are all reminiscent of fascist dictatorships in the 1930s. Even such a respectable, non-political person as Gen. Yair Golan, IDF deputy chief of staff, warned in a public presentation (amidst public outcry) that the racism in Israel reminds him of dark times and “processes that took place in Europe 80 years ago.”
These accusations may sound reasonable for some, but they are completely misguided. To begin with, the Israeli democracy’s checks and balances are still in operation. Political critics of the government are by and large unmolested and the freedoms of speech, assembly and press are mostly extant. Things are very different for Palestinians, living under military occupation, but for its citizens, Israel is still a functioning democracy.
The attempts of Netanyahu’s administration to augment its authority, its rhetorical intolerance towards rivals and its racism are indeed worrying, but they have little to do with fascism. Instead, they are rooted in a new global tendency of venomous populism. In fact, Netanyahu and the Likud can be located on the moderate side of an international spectrum that includes right-wing leaders in Hungary and Poland, India and the Philippines, Germany’s emerging AfD Party, Donald Trump, and even, on the extreme side of the scale, Russian and Turkish presidents Vladimir Putin and Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
The fascism of the 1930s was strictly, absolutely, anti-democratic. It denied the right of the “masses” to decide their own fate through electoral procedures, relying instead on a supreme leader’s intuitive understanding of the nation’s mystical “will,” manifest destiny or historical mission.
The new global populism, by contrast, is democratic in nature. The globe’s populist leaders were usually elected democratically and most of them enjoy the support of majorities, sometimes even robust ones. Even Vladimir Putin, the most dictatorial of them all, is supported by an overwhelming majority of Russia’s citizens.
The new populists base their legitimacy on this popular support. They differ from the older type of liberal leaders in their insistence that the majority’s “democratic” support allows them, as Netanyahu’s paladin Yariv Levin had put it, “to rule without fear.” The new populists – Trump in the USA, Erdogan in Turkey, Orban in Hungary, Modi in India, Duterte in the Philippines – all decry the checks and balances on majority rule from traditional elites in the media, the courts, the judicial bureaucracy, the academia and the cultural world. Worst of all, almost all of them explicitly or implicitly tie their rivals to “conspiracies” and “secret funding” of insidious foreign powers. They utilize democracy and democratic procedures, in order to repress political minorities, bypass restraints and ultimately undermine the civic freedoms that make democracy worthwhile.
In some of the more extreme cases, populists like Putin or Erdogan have so thoroughly undermined their societies’ checks and balances, that their regimes became de facto dictatorships. Trump has such tendencies, but US institutions seem too powerful to undermine, at least for the present.
Fortunately, Netanyahu is still on the moderate side of the populist spectrum. His government, notwithstanding its malicious rhetoric, is still committed in practice to some of the tenets of liberalism. The courts and the judicial system still function, threatening even Netanyahu himself with legal proceedings.
And yet, the current tendency leaves a lot to worry about. Netanyahu’s rhetorical style is increasingly similar to that of Trump and other populist leaders. The government’s incessant attempts to smash the restraints of judicial review are dangerous in the extreme. Most dangerous of all is the ideology, already mainstream in Likud and other right-wing circles, that whoever holds a democratic majority is entitled to rule without restraints.
Add to that a future, large-scale security crisis, a 9/11 style terrorist attack, or an all-out war with a formidable enemy like Iran, and “emergency measures” by the “democratically elected government” are not out of the question. In such a case, remote as it seems today, an Erdoganian dictatorship may lurk around the corner.
The writer is a military historian and senior lecturer in the History and Asian Studies Departments, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.