Netanyahu’s Politics of Fear Have Proven Highly-Effective

As the Israeli election results continue to be finalized, it appears that Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud Party has again emerged victorious—likely holding onto 30 of their current 31 seats in the government. The Zionist Union, Netanyahu’s primary opposition, garnered only 24 seats, with the Joint List of Arab candidates rounding out third place with a likely 14 seats. It was a decisive win for Likud and Netanyahu—one which could extend their mandate into 2019 and put Netanyahu on the path to being the longest-serving Prime Minister in Israel’s history.

In the international media, much has been made of PM Netanyahu’s brazen last-minute maneuvers to energize his right-wing base: His controversial speech before a joint session of the U.S. Congress on Iran’s supposed nuclear threat was intended largely as domestic propaganda—a successful attempt to circumvent Israeli campaign laws. In the days before the polls, he also grew more transparent in his position on the Palestine, insisting that there will be no Palestinian State so long as he remains Prime Minister. In the final hours he resorted to race-baiting pleas that Israeli Jews go to the polls to prevent “Arabs” from having a meaningful sway in the elections.

None of these maneuvers should have been surprising. Benjamin Netanyahu has built his entire political career out of portraying Iran and Palestine as existential threats to the Jewish people:

Transforming Likud

Likud was founded as a secular centrist party in 1973. The group first won the premiership in 1977, unseating the Labor Party for the first time since Israel’s establishment—it accomplished this feat, and subsequently formed a government, by building a broad coalition. Likud’s founder and first Prime Minister, Menachem Begin, then signed onto the landmark Camp David Accords in 1979, which called for the establishment of a Palestinian state. While the party shifted to the right following Begin’s 1983 resignation from politics, Likud maintained its prominence through the 80’s by forming a national unity government with Left.

During most of this period, Netanyahu was living in the West. He graduated from MIT’s Sloan School of Management in 1976, and spent most of the following decade doing consulting work. Over this time, he built a series of important connections that would allow him to transition into the government.

His relationship with Israeli Foreign Minister Moshe Arens eventually led to his appointment at the Deputy Ambassador to the U.S. (from 1982-4), and then as Israel’s Ambassador to the U.N. (1984-8). At his patron’s bequest, Netanyahu returned to Israel in 1988 and joined the Likud party.  Arens, then Israel’s Foreign Minister, appointed Netanyahu as his Deputy.

During this time, his relationship with the United States grew so toxic that the G.W. Bush Administration banned Netanyahu from the State Department for claiming that America’s policy on Israel, which has been overwhelmingly and consistently supportive across Administrations, was based “on a foundation of distortion and lies” insofar as U.S. policymakers supported an eventual end of the Israeli occupation of Palestine in the service of a two-state solution.

While this kind of grandstanding alienated many in the international community, it played extremely well in Israel. And so, following Likud’s 1992 electoral loss, Netanyahu sought to consolidate power in his party, and for his party, by fear-mongering: portraying Israel as being surrounded by existential threats which overruled virtually any domestic concerns. According to Netanyahu, these security challenges demanded a show of strength, requiring Israelis to stand united—therefore rendering dissent close to treason.

It was in 1992 Netanyahu, now the Likud Party’s leader, began insisting that Iran is “3-5 years” from obtaining a nuclear weapon. He called for an international coalition, led by the United States, to overthrow the Islamic Republic on these grounds. While he failed to provoke regime-change, his coalition successfully lobbied the United States to declare Iran and its supposed nuclear weapons program as a threat in 1995—based on problematic and largely-unverified Israeli-provided intelligence.

But Palestine was another major component of Netanyahu’s politics of fear:

Netanyahu was a staunch critic of the Oslo Accords, accusing PM Rabin of compromising Israeli security and sovereignty by negotiating with the Palestinians. Netanyahu and his party were so effective at stoking this climate of fear among Israelis that they actually helped lead to the literal, not merely political, demise of their chief political rival. In 1995 Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated by right-wing Zionist extremists; the PM’s killer said he was driven to his actions out of a conviction that the Oslo Accords represented an “existential threat” to Israel—repeating Netanyahu’s propaganda nearly verbatim.

But despite the widespread sentiment that Netanyahu’s irresponsible rhetoric may have significantly contributed to the Prime Minister’s death, Likud won the subsequent elections. Bibi achieved this feat by relying on Republican political consultants and running a dirty, fear-laden, American-style campaign—a precedent for Israeli politics that proved so effective it would be adopted by his critics in subsequent elections, with American propagandists playing an integral role in Israeli politics ever since…generally for the worse.


9/11, WMD’s and Regime-Change

In the wake of Likud’s victory, Netanyahu was appointed as Israel’s Prime Minister for the first time in 1996. However, his initial reign was short: while the party successfully derailed negotiations with the Palestinians, his coalition ultimately collapsed as a result: many within Likud wanted more sincere negotiations and were concerned by Likud’s continued drift to the right; these eventually broke off to form the centrist Kadima Party.  Others in the coalition viewed even Netanyahu’s limited bad-faith concessions, intended primarily to appease the United States, as a betrayal of his campaign commitments to unyieldingly resist the Palestinian cause.

The collapse of the coalition triggered early elections; Netanyahu fared poorly. Beyond his coalition’s polarization regarding Palestine, Israel’s 17-year occupation of South Lebanon, which Netanyahu propagated over his term, was increasingly viewed as a quagmire. And to top it all off, the Prime Minister and his wife faced multiple corruption charges. It was a perfect storm.

In the aftermath of his 1999 loss, Netanyahu partially withdrew from politics, refusing to stand as Likud’s candidate in 2001. And in a kind world, that could have been the end of Netanyahu’s political career. But then came 9/11.

Netanyahu viewed the September 11th attacks as an enormous moment of opportunity for the Israeli right to advance its agenda in the United States—and so he returned to Washington for this purpose.

Testifying before Congress in 2002, Netanyahu claimed that Iraq would “imminently” obtain a nuclear weapon, insisting that Saddam Hussein should be deposed by a U.S.-led coalition. He argued that overthrowing “rogue states” should be a bigger priority than attempting to contain or dismantle terror networks, and that interventions against these governments could be justified via the notion of pre-emptive defense on the pretext of WMD programs. He further argued that overthrowing Hussein would result in the rapid proliferation of liberalism across the region– including, perhaps especially, in Iran.

Of course, it turned out that Iraq did not have an active WMD program, despite bad-faith insistence to the contrary by Israeli intelligence, which played an important role in justifying the 2003 invasion. Moreover, overthrowing Hussein did not reduce the terrorism threat, but instead caused widespread chaos, to include the proliferation of terrorism. And rather than empowering liberals in Iran, the Bush Administration’s hardline stance discredited the Islamic Republic’s reformers, paving the way for Ahmadinejad and the conservatives.

In short, every component of Netanyahu’s logic has proven false—much like his incessant claims of Iran’s imminent realization of a nuclear weapon. But fear is a powerful thing. And rather than being discredited by the way things played out in Iraq and Iran, Netanyahu managed to capitalize on the very chaos his endorsed-policies created in order to seize the premiership once more.


Second Premiership

Netanyahu returned to the forefront of Israeli politics in 2008 by again stoking existential fears in Israel. He disparaged the 2006 Israeli withdrawal from Gaza and the 2008 Israeli ceasefire with Hamas. He criticized the Obama Administration’s stated commitments of establishing a Palestinian state and holding negotiations with Iran without preconditions—comparing the Islamic Republic to Germany’s Nazi regime (a comparison later parroted by President Bush), in much the same way he now compares Iran to ISIS.

Bibi was again re-elected in 2013 largely by capitalizing on Operation Pillar of Defense—which Netanyahu conveniently launched at the height of the Israeli campaign season. International outrage and condemnation of Israel’s campaign into Gaza, and subsequent UN recognition of Palestine in the weeks following the operation, only reinforced the siege mentality Netanyahu was trying to create—allowing the Prime Minister to narrowly win re-election. In his new term, Netanyahu has attempted to maintain this climate of fear indefinitely.

With regards to Palestine, the Prime Minister has gone out of his way to provoke conflict with Hamas, dismantle the Palestinian unity government, and undermine negotiations for Palestinian statehood.  He has put forward a “nationality law” which defines Israel was a Jewish state at the expense of its Arab and Muslim citizens.

Vis a vis Iran, he has attempted to sabotage the current nuclear negotiations by misrepresenting Iranian society and culture, the intelligence on Iran’s nuclear program, the science regarding breakout times, etc.—and more recently, state of negotiations with world powers and the contours of a political agreement.


Looking Forward

The latest elections demonstrate that Bibi’s tactics have polarized the Israeli public, highlighting widespread frustration with his potent formula of “fear and diversion from real issues.” But despite the Jewish opposition galvanizing behind Herzog, and the Arabs behind the joint list, ultimately this unity proved insufficient to overcome the larger share of Israeli voters driven by their fear of Iran and disdain for the Palestinian cause. These forces will form the core of Netanyahu’s coalition unless he can convince Herzog to join instead—thereby providing his regime with a façade of international legitimacy.

Regardless of how that shakes out, the brute reality underscored by Likud’s performance, and the opposition’s inability to form an alternative government, is that a plurality of the Israeli electorate continues to buy into Netanyahu’s gospel of xenophobia and confrontation. And this seems unlikely to change in the foreseeable future.


Published 3/23/2015 on Al-Jazeera America


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