Populism plagues Left and Right alike

MIDDLE ISRAEL: The approaching election is about the three faces of populism: waste, bigotry, and personality cult.

 A LIKUD SUPPORTER cast his vote in the party’s primary elections at a polling station in Tel Aviv on August 10. (photo credit: TOMER NEUBERG/FLASH90)
A LIKUD SUPPORTER cast his vote in the party’s primary elections at a polling station in Tel Aviv on August 10.
(photo credit: TOMER NEUBERG/FLASH90)

“Surgery must hurt,” said finance minister Pinchas Sapir in 1966, as he and prime minister Levi Eshkol set out to cool the young Jewish state’s overheated economy.

It was a display of supreme responsibility, the exact opposite of the populism that now inspires Israel’s Left and Right alike. 

Labor’s populists offer financial alchemy. Eshkol and Sapir understood that spending must reflect resources. That is why when faced with growing deficits they cut spending. Unemployment initially soared, from 3.3% to nearly 12%, but prudence ultimately paid off. Israel arrived at the Six Day War in June 1967 financially balanced, and the economy then proceeded to full employment and breakneck growth.

The same prudence was displayed by Labor’s leaders in 1985, when Shimon Peres led the austerity plan that defeated hyperinflation, and included deep budget cuts as well as salary and hiring freezes.

Now Labor is set to embark on an entirely different path.

 Labor leader Merav Michaeli speaks to the media after voting in the Labor primary elections. (credit: AVSHALOM SASSONI/MAARIV) Labor leader Merav Michaeli speaks to the media after voting in the Labor primary elections. (credit: AVSHALOM SASSONI/MAARIV)

Populism in Labor

MERAV MICHAELI’S Labor just shed the last remnants of its old guard, Diaspora Affairs Minister Nahman Shai and Internal Security Minister Omer Bar Lev. Aged respectively 75 and 68, there may have been logic in the pair’s replacement, provided the new blood would bring what they brought. But they don’t.

Led by MK Naama Lazimi, 36, a social activist who came out first in Labor’s primaries, the party’s list of candidates now lacks names with serious managerial experience. Shai, by contrast, was chairman of the Israel Broadcast Association, CEO of the Second Broadcast Authority, and IDF spokesperson.

Having thus overseen 1,600 employees and big budgets, Shai understood management and the responsibility it demands. The same goes for Bar Lev, who commanded the IDF’s fabled commando unit Sayeret Matkal.

Lazimi lacks the kind of sobriety and measure such positions foster. That is why she proposed to spike the minimum wage by 28 percent, from an hourly NIS 29 to NIS 40, and also to impose controls on apartment rental rates.

Both proposals are recipes for disaster, the kind that Bernie Sanders would hail but Eshkol and Peres would throw out the window, because they totally ignore the power of market forces and the utility of free pricing. Needless to say, like all populists, Lazimi never explained how we would foot the national bills she was concocting.

Populism in the Religious Zionist Party

MEANWHILE, ACROSS the political aisle, religious Zionism is also toying with populism, in its own way. The alliance between the Religious Zionist Party and anti-Arab provocateur Itamar Ben-Gvir must be making the historic Mizrachi movement’s founders turn in their graves.

Modern Orthodoxy’s politicians once epitomized balance, moderation, and constitutionalism, represented by towering scholars and jurists like Rabbi Yehuda Maimon and Dr. Zerach Warhaftig.

Now this sector’s representatives are joining the riffraff that would storm the High Court of Justice because it confronts efforts to unlawfully seize Palestinian-owned lands.

The descendants of people who once voted for Modern Orthodox paragons of civility and compromise, like Haim Moshe Shapira and Yosef Burg, now tell pollsters they will vote for a disciple of Rabbi Meir Kahane, the high priest of Israel’s racists.

Like Labor’s Lazimi, Ben-Gvir also never managed any agency, but he still scatters hollow promises to “defeat terrorism,” to “once and for all” bring an end to the crime crisis in the Arab sector, and to “restore law and order” in the Bedouin sector.

The responsible people who grappled with these daunting challenges over the years are for Ben-Gvir nothing. Of Defense Minister Benny Gantz, for instance, he said he “doesn’t even care about the state.”

Talk is cheap and for populists, it’s even cheaper. Gantz, incidentally, gave this country 38 years as a soldier. Ben-Gvir served not one day.


WHILE ECONOMIC and ethnic populism thrives on the political margins, our ruling party has been run over by populism’s third version, the personality cult.

Likud has just lost independent-minded politicians like former ministers Yuval Steinitz, who is retiring; Tzachi Hanegbi, who was pushed out in the party’s primary; and Yuli Edelstein, who was sidelined because he said he would run against Benjamin Netanyahu.

Instead of them, the party’s members promoted a host of sycophants whose common denominator is blind admiration for Netanyahu. Down went Steinitz, a bestselling philosopher, and up went Shlomo Karhi, who placed on his desk a golden bust of Netanyahu.

An engineer and accountant, the 40-year-old Karhi is no idiot. He knows what it takes to succeed in today’s Likud, and it’s not originality, idealism, charisma or conviction. It’s loyalty to the leader, and the cheerleading of his every utterance, whim, deed and also misdeed.

POPULISM, THEN, is besieging Israeli politics from multiple corners. It’s part of a global trend that in recent years gave rise to varied characters, from Britain’s Jeremy Corbin on the Left to Hungary’s Viktor Orban on the Right, a variety that makes scholars break pens over populism’s very definition.

Dutch political scientist Cas Mudde says populists pit “the innocent masses” against “the corrupt elites.” One can add that populists target the undereducated, fan their fears, and lie about the facts.

That’s how Sanders said his universal healthcare plan would cost taxpayers a weekly $1.61, while the real figure was $4.7, and how Donald Trump said he would raise defense spending, cut taxes, and also eliminate the national debt, which is as possible as fighting obesity with a diet of cupcakes, sundaes and fries.

Economic reality was of course different – America’s debt soared under Trump by 39 percent and its budget deficit by nearly 50 percent – but the political reality is that Trump remains on the saddle and may well return to lead the Republican party, America, and the free world. Lying works, he effectively says, as do Israel’s populists, from both Left and Right. Lying fuels their careers, the era’s turmoil, and our despair.


The writer, a Hartman Institute fellow, is the author of the bestselling Mitzad Ha’ivelet Ha’yehudi (The Jewish March of Folly, Yediot Sefarim, 2019), a revisionist history of the Jewish people’s political leadership. 

The epoch’s populism has come to plague Israel’s Left and Right, and is what November’s election is all about.