Israel Said No to Authoritarianism, but Risk of Populism Remains

Noa Landau
Noa Landau
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People celebrate the end of Benjamin Netanyahu's term as prime minister at Tel Aviv's Rabin Square, Sunday.
Noa Landau
Noa Landau

The main message shared by all the disparate branches of the new government, from right and left, is clear: This week, Israel said no to a government with authoritarian characteristics.

After 12 years in power, MK Benjamin Netanyahu adopted more than a few traits of this type: He turned the members of the government and cabinet into rubber stamps and concentrated power and numerous types of authority in his office. He undermined the principle of the separation of authorities, and especially the independence of the justice system and law enforcement, he compartmentalized the executive branch, cultivated a personal and familial cult of personality, ascribed to himself superhuman qualities, quashed the political competition in Likud and became his party’s supreme leader.

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The ideological line of the movement he represented lost meaning because it was zigzagged in the service of his cynical needs. Netanyahu lied as easily as he breathed and always had in his pocket an external and internal enemy and an imaginary deep state that had to be fought while sowing divisiveness. He also challenged human rights and freedom of the press.

Hovering above all of this were the charges of corruption, that are also typical of rulers who believe they deserve to have it all. In order to solidify his grip on power for an unlimited time and to evade justice, he did not hesitate to seek a change of Basic Laws and to alter the rules of the game in his favor. He truly did start to believe that the state is him, that its successes are his successes, from the health funds and high-tech to the restaurants in the periphery, and that everything emanates from his word.

Yes, Israel within the ’67 lines hadn’t yet become a textbook case of an anti-democratic regime. But with the threatening way the winds were blowing it seemed as though we might get there. In a step not to be taken lightly in such a relatively young country, the citizens chose to replace Netanyahu, effectively saying, through their representatives in the coalition: “Not here.”

At the heart of the change bloc’s public criticism was not only Netanyahu’s alleged corruption and his divisive campaigns, but also a sign that Israelis are not willing to accept a leader with megalomaniacal ambitions who wants to rule them forever. At its base, Israeli society is a political society which, despite the paradox of the occupation, still yearns to be part of the democratic world. In this sense, in other countries where problematic lines have been crossed, like Hungary, they are now trying to learn from Israel how to build a similar opposition.

But despite this huge success story, there is still a threat that has not passed. Israel said no to authoritarianism, but the danger of populism remains. Naftali Bennett and Yair Lapid may have replaced the Netanyahu government, but in many ways, they are still caught in the confines of the discourse that he shaped. This is a discourse in which there is a constant need to prove patriotism by means of right-wing positions that supposedly represent “the people,” and whoever doesn’t hold these positions, like the left and Arab citizens, is a traitor, or at the very least, illegitimate. In the past, both Bennett and Lapid gave in to this narrative. Even now, the Bibi-ist spirit of populism can be felt in the way that Bennett uses apologetic language to justify his choices.

From his perch in the opposition, Netanyahu will become the rival from hell. Even if he no longer holds the reins of many centers of power, he still has one very significant weapon: He will continue to outline the boundaries of the discourse in the name of the imaginary “people” that voted for him.

The real change will happen when Bennett and Lapid free themselves of the need to toe his line and to prove that they are “good-enough rightists.” What was it you said that time, Bennett? We’re through apologizing.

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