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Long After Netanyahu’s Gone, Likud and the Right Will Suffer From Post-Cult Trauma Syndrome

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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu posing for a selfie with coalition members after his government passed the nation-state law, July 19, 2018.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu posing for a selfie with coalition members after his government passed the nation-state law, July 19, 2018.Credit: Olivier Fitoussi

Expert sociologists and psychologists have developed a checklist that identifies whether a religious, social or political group meets the criteria of a cult. As far as the Israeli right, in general, and the Likud, in particular, are concerned, the conclusions are crystal-clear.

A group that is actually a cult is focused on a charismatic leader, who commands and receives absolute obedience. The leader not only dictates the group’s views, he (or she) formulates its members’ perception of reality. The leader is seen as exempt from laws and accepted norms. Sounds familiar?

The group punishes anyone who expresses criticism or dissent. The group’s members come to believe that the end justifies the means. They embrace an “us vs. them” mentality. They harbor feelings of hostility and resentment toward any and all outsiders.

Members of the cult develop a deep emotional and psychological dependence on the leader, which lingers on long after he (or she) is gone. The recovery process can be long and arduous. Among the symptoms attributed to what psychologists term “Post-Cult Trauma Syndrome” one finds depression, isolation, anguish, bereavement, difficulties in forming relationships, fits of rage and an overriding urge to return to the intimacy, exclusivity and support they felt while under the influence.

Which means that the thought that Israeli politics will naturally revert to a semblance of sanity once Benjamin Netanyahu leaves the stage is overly optimistic, if not naive. Even if the seemingly impossible happened on Monday night when Netanyahu finally relinquished his presidential mandate to form a new government, and even if his rival Benny Gantz succeeds where he has failed, Netanyahu exits right and a successor is chosen – the Israeli right will need a long period of recuperation and rehabilitation before it can overcome its addiction, if at all.

Their wish to be ruled by a “strong leader” won’t dissipate. Their paranoia and victim mentality won’t subside. Their hatred for “lefties” won’t abate. Their willingness to sacrifice Israeli democracy and the rule of law on the altar of permanent control of Judea and Samaria won’t dwindle. And Netanyahu’s departure won’t change things, certainly not overnight.

It is unrealistic to expect a coalition, which has willingly transformed the Knesset into Netanyahu’s rubber stamp, to suddenly develop an appreciation for checks and balances. It is unreasonable to assume that senior Likud figures, who have functioned in recent years as kowtowing toadies, will suddenly discover their spines. It is presumptuous to believe that a political movement that has decimated anyone who challenged Netanyahu and which acquiesced to its replacement by mediocre non-entities to suddenly develop an appetite for resilient and independent leadership.

Netanyahu did not create the right-wing disdain for the liberal values enshrined in Israel’s Declaration of Independence. He didn’t invent the right-wing craving for neutering the gatekeepers, diminishing the Supreme Court or curtailing minority rights. Netanyahu simply harnessed the right’s preexisting anti-democratic sentiments to serve his personal and legal interests, although he was the one who crossed the Rubicon, Likud in tow, and burned all the bridges behind him.

The belief that the right-wing malaise will disappear the moment Netanyahu is gone also ignores the nearly identical ailment gripping many democratic countries, especially the United States. The American right, in general, and the GOP, in particular, are suffering from similar symptoms, ergo the challenges facing the Israeli right are neither local nor personal.

Under Donald Trump, the Republican Party has developed a cult of personality, is fueled by ethnocentric incitement and adheres to an “us vs. them” worldview. Like the Likud, the GOP would rather wallow in Trump’s delusional paranoias than take a long hard look at the long-term havoc he’s wreaking.

In an ideal world, the end of the Netanyahu era would lead Likud and the right directly to rehabilitation center, even if the prospects for a full recovery are slim, and possibly to total dismantlement and rebirth. Back on earth, however, Likud and the right are far more likely to seek out an updated model of Netanyahu, even one that is inferior, who can recreate the glory days of yore and lead its followers into the abyss they insist on jumping into, head-first.

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