In a February 1967 article in the New Yorker magazine, Hannah Arendt surveyed the tense relationship between truth and power. Rulers, especially authoritarians, despise the truth because they can’t control it, she writes. They can debate or even compromise with differing opinions “but unwelcome facts possess an infuriating stubbornness that nothing can move except plain lies.” Arendt, whose expertise included dissection of totalitarian propaganda, warned half a century before Donald Trump against the ability of modern leaders to create a false reality that is so persuasive that it could provide a comprehensive alternative to truth.
This is what Benjamin Netanyahu and his minions are working on these days. They are trying to manufacture a separate factual universe that holds Netanyahu’s denial of the allegations against him as a self-evident truth. He is the innocent victim. His legal problems are totally unwarranted. From this it follows that the criminal investigations against him must be the result of a dark conspiracy hatched by his rivals, who wish to depose him undemocratically, outside the ballot box. To paraphrase a famous saying of his hero Winston Churchill, Netanyahu in his distress is protecting his original sins with a bodyguard of lies.
In Netanyahu’s world of falsehoods, taking expensive gifts from tycoons with vested interests is the norm. Efforts to subjugate and castrate the country’s free press are desirable. Selling state assets in exchange for positive media coverage is the way of the world. And the fact that his closest confidantes shamelessly exploited their ties to the top in order to make millions off of billion-dollar defense deals is of no interest to the public. This can only mean that Netanyahu’s police investigators are bent, the attorneys accompanying the case are weaklings and the dark forces of the left, in media, academia and the halls of justice, are the ones pulling the strings and calling the shots.
Netanyahu’s false narrative has a built in advantage. It isn’t messy, complex or ambiguous like reality. It can distort and absorb any new development to seamlessly align with the original lie. Thus, a police commissioner that Netanyahu has praised effusively turns overnight into a prince of darkness. Advisers and assistants who were hitherto loyal, credible and privy to state secrets suddenly morph into two-bit informers with no shame and no knowledge. And a strong and resilient system of law and order - which, despite its blemishes, was the pride of the country - is suddenly exposed as a viper’s nest of corruption, evil and perversion of justice. The only constant, of course, is the media, purveyor of fake news, where facts are always concoctions.
Netanyahu has at his disposal legions of useful idiots, in politics and the media, who spread his anti-Israel libel throughout the land, out of ignorance and prejudice. Others, including senior Likud figures, prefer to stay silent out of expediency or fear of angering the mob that swallows Netanyahu’s every word. After long years of near-solitary rule and his relentless agitation against internal and external enemies, large chunks of Israeli public opinion are like putty in the hands of a master brainwasher like Netanyahu. The belief in his delusional conspiracy theories is more palatable for them than coming to terms with the reality of a leader who is evading justice and refusing to go.
Against a sustained onslaught of lies from the regime, truth telling becomes a political weapon in and of itself, Arendt notes. Perhaps as part of her own rejection of criticism leveled against her because of her coverage of the Eichmann trial, Arendt goes so far as to assert that truth will ultimately conquer all. It has a resiliency that will outlast the distortions of power, she claims. Unfortunately, Arendt’s article couldn’t predict whether this victory will come before or after the next elections and whether Israel will be forced to pay the heavy price that willful addiction to lies exacted from societies throughout history.