Cry of Israel's Ruling Party: The Reichstag Is Burning

MK Ayman Odeh films Netanyahu to protest his claim that Arabs are trying to 'steal the election,' September 11, 2019.
Olivier Fitoussi

In some ways, the life of a fascist dictator these days is harder than it was in an earlier time, during the classic wave of fascism. Nowadays, the public eye is not so fond of huge parades and mass displays of admiration for a leader. Nor is an oath of personal sacrifice for the sake of the leader and the homeland as popular as it once was in societies that have experienced at least a decade or two of democracy, or near-democracy.

This age of continual filming and media gives government institutions tremendous power to shape public opinion, but it also imposes a limit on their power. The cultural refinement of a sort that we’ve undergone in the last decades has made our symbols less concrete and more abstract. Instead of royal palaces, we have official residences in which what goes on inside is more important than their appearance. Instead of massive military parades, we get “implicit” talk of strength and capabilities. And instead of the kingdom being physically embodied by the ruler and his progeny, we have the existence of the principles of the state in practice, the principles and modes of action that give expression to its spirit.

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Haaretz Weekly Ep. 39Haaretz

Whoever wishes to burn down the Reichstag of our day needn’t set fire to buildings, but instead set fire to the democratic traditions that rightly enjoy near-hallowed status. The symbolic buildings of the present are abstract and exist on the level of public consensus.

This is precisely what Benjamin Netanyahu is doing with regard to the institution of elections. Destroying the Israeli public’s trust in this institution is akin to dropping an atom bomb on the center of democratic life; such a profound and thorough undermining of democracy’s most important institution will have tragic consequences.

Should the basic structures of democracy be shaken, the public will surge toward the most powerful entity in the society, who will be perceived as a stabilizing force – even as he is responsible for the undermining. Another equally dangerous consequence to be expected is that the large groups that support the Likud hegemony will be persuaded that the Palestinian minority in Israel is not just an existential ethnic, religious and security danger, but also a threat to the Jewish attempt to establish a democracy. Identifying the Arabs as a danger to democracy will fall on fertile ground poisoned by years of governmental incitement and institutional racism against Arabs.

The understanding that wrecking the sacred mutual agreements of democracy is a powerful tool for entrenching the power of the new fascism is not unique to Likud. Not for nothing is U.S. President Donald Trump spreading falsehoods about millions of illegal immigrants streaming to the polls in America. Like their predecessors, today’s fascists understand that to gain absolute power they must present the public with a powerful pretext. “Contamination of the democratic process” is just such a pretext.

When the public is convinced that the elections are tainted by fraud, the right-wing hegemony’s argument that elections cannot be held at this time will seem to make a lot of sense.

In the transition from undeclared fascism to full dictatorship there is always a moment in which the Reichstag burns: a point in time identified by those who aspire to absolute power and leveraged by them as a grave national danger to which only they can provide the answer. After the burning of the Reichstag, the Nazi party passed a series of laws that made it a dictatorial power in Germany. Framing the Israeli election as a fraud (perpetrated by the Arabs) will lift Likud from the status of one party among many to the sole power to be entrusted with safeguarding proper government in Israel. With another Likud government led by Netanyahu, Israel will be striding toward a tragedy foretold.