The commentators, experts and political rivals focus on the content of the prime minister’s outrageous, inflammatory speech. There’s a lot to focus on and to be outraged by. But those who concentrate on Netanyahu and deride him, magnifying him to demonic proportions, are going very easy on themselves.
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Anyone who wants to understand what perpetuates this phenomenon called Benjamin Netanyahu must turn the camera to his supporting crowd, which came from all over the country to Tel Aviv Wednesday to demonstrate its adoration, which elects him time and again, and whose support intensifies the most when he’s exposed in his nakedness by both the media and law enforcement.
This is a large public that is ready to protect him regardless of this investigation or that one, whatever the findings, and is happy to embrace him even when there is no political agenda, despite the quasi-right-wing content that was woven into his speech. It’s a crowd that cheers fervently to the statement “we have both Amona and Dimona” – even though Amona was recently evacuated on Netanyahu’s own watch. The crowd is saying that no matter what Netanyahu does, it will always be there to support him.
It isn’t easy to focus on this public, both because it frustrates anyone wishing for the end of Netanyahu’s rule, and because such scrutiny is always exploited effectively by Netanyahu himself. Any criticism of these people and he immediately brands it as patronization and condescension toward his supporters. He, who uses racism and divisiveness in the coarsest, most cynical manner, and who, by treating his supporters as the authentic masses whom only he understands, is guilty of the worst form of condescension by marking anyone who criticizes him as arrogant, as one who wants to change the nation – as if the nation is him.
Netanyahu said in his speech that his supporters include both Mizrahim and Ashkenazim and coined other terms meant to describe a broad Israeli public. He knows very well that this is a bluff. The people who came to embrace him on Wednesday and fought among themselves for the chance to photograph him on their smartphones were quite homogenous: mainly Mizrahim, residents of the periphery, with more wearing black kippas than knitted ones. They were not necessarily “economically disadvantaged,” in the euphemism commonly used for poor people, but those who hate anything that smells of an economic or cultural elite. They are people who feel that this elite victimized them in the past and is victimizing them now. After 40 years of right-wing rule, those imaginary elites are still a gigantic enemy with long tentacles, while Netanyahu – an Ashkenazi raised in a prosperous, very well educated family – is their very own educated, handsome, eloquent and even disruptive emissary, who is defeating their enemy.
His authentic hatred for the elites, more than anything else, is what drives Netanyahu’s political career. His most fervent supporters aren’t fools either. They understand that Netanyahu is a bon vivant, and that what interests him much more than their welfare is to jealously guard his seat of power. But they forgive him for everything, because he answers a need, a consistent, ongoing demand. Otherwise, his merchandise would have been left unsold in the incitement warehouse.
A woman who came to the rally at the Tel Aviv Fairgrounds and even offered to share the ride home with me said the Mapai government had stolen her family’s money, and that the Mizrahim in Israel’s first decades were slaves who were afraid to open their mouths. Came the Likud with the compulsory education law and raised up the Mizrahim, she said. I told her the compulsory education law was enacted during Mapai’s government.
Never mind, she went on, we were downtrodden, we were afraid to open our mouths. When Rabin was murdered, she said, I was happy, but I couldn’t show my joy. My son, who was killed a few years later in an army accident, asked me to restrain myself. Today I can show my feelings.
Anyone who wants to understand the secret of Netanyahu’s charm must look directly at these people and listen to their stories. This isn’t a war for or against Netanyahu. This is a culture war, and Netanyahu is no more than a player in it.