Opinion |

Netanyahu Exploits Coronavirus Fears to Consolidate Authoritarian Hold on Power

Bertrand Russell: 'Neither a man, nor a crowd, nor a nation can be trusted to act humanely or to think sanely under the influence of a great fear'

Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev
The hands of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, March 8, 2020.
The hands of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, March 8, 2020.Credit: Oded Balilty,AP
Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev

Fear is the tyrant’s best friend - and liberty’s worst enemy. The human instinct for survival is more powerful than any social commitment to decency, due process, separation of powers or the nuances of democracy. As philosopher Bertrand Russell wrote: “Neither a man, nor a crowd, nor a nation can be trusted to act humanely or to think sanely under the influence of a great fear.”

Fear was the instrument wielded most by 20th century tyrants, dictators and authoritarians. It provided them with pretext to remove restrictions, expand authority and to diminish, if not destroy, checks and balances.

Will Israel's cyber spies let Bibi use coronavirus to kill democracy?Credit: Haaretz

“A fundamental difference between modern dictatorships and all other tyrannies of the past is that terror is no longer used as a means to exterminate and frighten opponents, but as an instrument to rule masses of people who are perfectly obedient,” Hannah Arendt wrote in "The Origins of Totalitarianism."

Stalin claimed a Western capitalist plot to re-enslave workers liberated by communism; Hitler conjured a Jewish Bolshevik plot to weaken Germany and dilute the Aryan race; Mussolini railed against the imminent threat of socialism, liberalism and the Sicilian mafia. Today, Viktor Orban concocts a George Soros plot under every tree, Donald Trump turns illegal immigration into a sinister foreign invasion and Benjamin Netanyahu depicts Israeli Arabs as harboring eternal and irredeemable hostility to the State of Israel and an enduring wish to see it destroyed.

The coronavirus pandemic, on the other hand, needs no inflation or promotion: It sparks a primeval dread passed down in human genes from generation to generation. From God’s Ten Plagues on Egypt, through the 5th century Justinian Plague which, inter alia, decimated Byzantine Palestine, to the 13-14th centuries’ Black Plague that demolished Europe, all the way to the 1918 Spanish Flu that killed 60 million people worldwide.

All the leaders of the world are duty-bound to ward off the coronavirus and to minimize loss of life among their people. Only a small minority will exploit the situation to silence dissent and entrench their own rule. Netanyahu, to Israel’s bad luck, belongs to that minority.

In the past 48 hours alone, Netanyahu has capitalized on his country’s fear by postponing his own trial, assuming, correctly, that people fear coronavirus more than the criminal. He compelled Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein to subvert the outcome of this month’s elections by preventing the newly constituted Knesset from nominating a new speaker in his stead. And he opened Israel’s door to a totalitarian state by deploying the Shin Bet’s formidable surveillance apparatus on Israeli citizens, with no external or parliamentary oversight.

Netanyahu’s craven cabinet ministers approved the new measures unanimously, the Hebrew term for which translates as “with one mouth.” In Netanyahu’s gutless government, the one and only mouth is his own. Rather than argue with criticism that his move is a blow to democracy and a prologue to a police state, Netanyahu responded by claiming that “even a one-hour delay in using these measures could cause the death of very many Israelis,” as if he himself hadn’t postponed the decision for days.

Who would dare risk the death of “very many Israelis?” Netanyahu’s insinuation is crystal-clear: My opponents and critics, including leftist, liberals, Arabs and all others with sinister designs for Israel’s future. If Barack Obama were still around, he’d certainly make the list.

Netanyahu would never emulate Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s immortal inaugural speech of 1932, when America and the world was facing complete collapse of its economy. “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself - nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance,” FDR said. Netanyahu, on the other hand, needs fear. He thrives on it.

Which is why he is now inflating his citizens’ fear beyond measure, rather than calming them down. Under the cover of universal dread, Netanyahu is undermining the rule of law, debilitating Israeli democracy and laying the groundwork for seizing power for eternity or until his last dying breath - whichever comes first.

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