Allison Kaplan Sommer says that: “Israelis, whether they want to admit it or not, have spent a good part of the past year feeling afraid.”
She goes on to detail how Benjamin Netanyahu masterfully built his election campaign around the exploitation of that fear.
He systematically painted the main contenders vying for the premiership Isaac Herzog and Tzipi Livni as weak and ineffective, laughably so. He began by feminizing them and infantilizing them with mocking videos that portrayed them as gossiping girlfriends in a kitchen and misbehaving children in a preschool.
As the campaign wore on, he moved away from a comic approach and started making his charges more seriously. His rivals were naive dupes, he said, vulnerable to foreign pressure, and would leave Israel exposed to its enemies – while he positioned himself in contrast as a strong protector who can stand up to pressure no matter where it came from (even the White House!) and whatever he deems necessary to keep Israelis safe, no matter how brutal, immoral, or racist.
The derisive manner in which Netanyahu condescended to “Tzipi” and “Bougie” and “the left” when he spoke evoked the famous Jack Nicholson speech in “A Few Good Men” when, testifying as Col. Jessup, he smirks “Son, we live in a world that has walls, and those walls have to be guarded by men with guns. Who’s gonna do it? You? I have a greater responsibility than you could possibly fathom … My existence, while grotesque and incomprehensible to you, saves lives. You don’t want the truth because deep down in places you don’t talk about at parties, you want me on that wall, you need me on that wall.”
At every juncture, when the going got tough for Netanyahu, appealing to fear was his go-to campaign strategy. Some might argue it was his entire campaign strategy. To those who understood this, it was clear in his showdown with President Obama that he would never submit to White House pressure to cancel his speech before Congress, no matter how hard Obama and the Democrats piled on the pressure.
The reason had nothing to do with the urgency of the issue of Iran or even Netanyahu’s desire to impress his electorate with the speech – but because backing down would utterly undercut the tough unbending image he was working to project to the electorate.
The ultimate proof of the effectiveness of his scare-mongering tactics – and his willingness to cross any line to implement them – was the now-infamous last-minute online video released well into Election Day, expressing fears based on factually-challenged claims: “Arab voters are coming out in droves to the polls. Left-wing organizations are busing them out.” He compared the need to vote for him to the emergency military reserve call-up notice: “Get out to vote, bring your friends and family – in order to close the gap between us and Labor. With your help, and with God’s help we’ll establish a nationalist government that will safeguard the State of Israel.”
In the video, Netanyahu puts out the call in the urgent tones of of a military commander planning strategy and giving out orders with a tone of urgency. He makes the pronouncement seated in front of a map of the Middle East, clearly designed to remind voters of the neighborhood in which they reside: Hamas to the south, Hezbollah in Lebanon, and now, ISIS just over the border with Syria.
It all worked brilliantly. Israelis went for the devil they know – they voted for an internationally unpopular bully rather than roll the dice on a man they feared might be too nice to keep them safe.
Whether one is an Israeli or not, Jewish or gentile, everyone understands what it means to be afraid. Fear is easy to exploit and so those whose fears are exploited are easy to view as victims.
From this perspective, Netanyahu, the bully, coerced Israelis and took advantage of their prevailing fears.
For Israel’s liberal supporters — especially in America — this way of viewing Netanyahu’s ability to retain his hold on power is essentially sympathetic. It provides room for loving Israel while despising its leader.
But Israel’s prime minister did not get re-elected simply by being a very effective fear-monger. What he did was wholeheartedly tap into the racism that lies at the core of Israelis’ fears.
Netanyahu did not snatch victory from the jaws of defeat by desperately resorting to racism. Racism was his trump card which he played with perfect timing, confident that it would have its desired effect.
Rather than letting the power of racism become blunted by being scattered among the small parties of the Right, Netanyahu successfully presented voting for Likud as the best way of holding back the Arab threat.
In America, for a politician, even at a minor local level, to make such a blatantly racist move would almost certainly destroy his career.
Even though racism still pervades American culture in many ways, it is no longer culturally acceptable. Even though a lot of the political opposition to Barack Obama has had racist undertones, racism rarely blatantly shows its face in contemporary America — at least among those who hope to win elections. Racism has to be concealed, but when exposed, is generally disavowed.
When Netanyahu warned about “Arab voters coming out in droves,” he was in fact reiterating the core presupposition upon which Zionism is founded: that non-Jews pose a threat to Jews and Jewish security depends on the protection of Jewish power.
Peter Beinart, one of Netanyahu’s harshest critics, describes Israel as “the one state in the world that has as its mission statement the protection of Jewish life.”
That is indeed true, but the implication is that without the protection of such a state, Jewish life is inevitably in jeopardy.
Yet even though the U.S. Constitution has no provisions that relate specifically to the protection of Jewish life, it’s hard to argue that Jews living here are any less safe than those living in Israel.
On the contrary, what protects Jewish life and the lives of every other minority more than anything else is not any form of nationalism, but instead it is democracy.
In a democracy, citizens share equal rights. In Israel they do not.