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Netanyahu's Mussolini-style 'Red Menace' Scare Tactics Threaten Israeli Democracy

Where criticism is disloyalty and political rivals are stabbers in the nation's back – free elections turn into a ticking time bomb that needs to be neutralized

Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev
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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem, February 24, 2019.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem, February 24, 2019.Credit: Emil Salman
Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev

Benito Mussolini seized power in 1922 following his Fascist troopers’ “March on Rome” and King Victor Emmanuel III decision to appoint him prime minister to avert civil war. One of the keys to Mussolini’s success was his ability to exploit the fear that gripped many Italians after the 1917 Russian Revolution that Communism would take hold in Italy as well, and convincing them that only he could arrest its inexorable advance.

Historians tend to split the four years it took Mussolini to become Italy’s beloved “Duce" following his release from army service at the end of the First World War into two separate eras. The Biennio Rosso, or “Two Red Years”, during which Mussolini’s warning fed on a reality in which Italian socialists, often under the guidance of Moscow’s moles, went from strength to strength by using street violence, paralyzing the Italian economy with wildcat strikes and making significant gains in the polls. In the following two years, dubbed Biennio Nero for Mussolini’s violent Black Shirt minions, Mussolini continued to urge his countrymen to resist the “Red Menace” despite the fact that by then an economic crisis had effectively snuffed out much of the Bolshevik upheaval.

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Mussolini showed his students, from Germany’s Hitler through Spain’s Franco to America’s Joe McCarthy, that scaremongering works. He proved that agitation against an impending Communist takeover can pave nationalists’ way to power, even if its existence is confined to political propaganda. Communism was portrayed, sometimes accurately but mostly in intentionally wild exaggeration, as a clear and present danger to the wellbeing of the state, and its adherents as foreign agents, wittingly or unwittingly serving Moscow. The message was that in a life or death war of survival, true patriots rally around the only person capable of saving the homeland, whatever his failures and deficiencies.

The same kind of thinking underlies Benjamin Netanyahu’s deceitful propaganda in the current election campaign. After successfully instilling public opinion with an automatic association between “the left” and disloyalty in the service of malevolent foreigners, Netanyahu and his Likud messengers are studiously attaching the stigma to their political rivals including, most ludicrously, former Chief of Staff Benny Gantz and his newly-formed Blue and White party, which would be classified as center-right by any normal standard. For those too dense to comprehend, Netanyahu now insists on expanding the term “left” with the arguably racist determiner “backed by Arabs” to drive home the opposition’s subversive treachery.

In Netanyahu’s statements, the April 9 elections aren’t a democratic duel between two conflicting legitimate points of view but a battle in an ongoing fight to the death between the Children of Light and the Children of Darkness. His defeat wouldn’t just bring about a change in government, which lies at the heart of democracy, but would constitute a victory for Israel’s enemies and haters, on their way to its destruction. When the town is burning and in danger of extinction, true patriots won’t be moved by mere trifles such the prime minister’s alleged corruption or his recent koshering of Kahane-style Jewish supremacism. These, in any case, are all trumped up scandals, charges inflated by the left and its collaborators in the “Bolshevik media”, as Netanyahu often describes his country’s free press.

Netanyahu no longer makes do with his staple description of the criminal cases against him as “a leftist plot” to depose him “outside the ballot box”. He now depicts the very attempt to replace him in free and open elections as leftist subterfuge that will inevitably lead Israel to ruin. Commentators claim that Netanyahu is simply trying to repeat his successful “Arabs are voting in hordes” gambit that helped him get reelected in 2015, but his record in the past four years - as well as history’s clear lesson - shows that fear campaigns that aim to delegitimize political rivals are destined to morph from propaganda to policy.

When criticism is equated with disloyalty and critics are compared to stabbers in the nation’s back, democracy itself becomes a time bomb that needs to be neutralized before it can explode and wreak its destructive havoc.

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