Netanyahu isn’t an enemy of democracy like Putin, but he’s perilously close to post-modern fascism.
When Bibi spent a full two-and-a-half hours this week in the company of Russian Leader Vladimir Putin, no doubt most of the time was indeed dedicated to figuring how to prevent Israel and Russia from accidentally shooting at each in Syria. But it’s tempting to imagine they shared some leadership tips as well.
Putin has emerged as the example par excellence of an elected leader who whittled away at his country’s democratic institutions, clamping down on the media, playing fast and loose with laws and human rights, and disparaging the opposition as an enemy of the state.
The Russian leader, now in his 15th year in power, isn’t alone. Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan, marking his 12th year in power, has behaved much the same way, even going as far as to mimic the Putin maneuver of deftly switching jobs to retain his grip on power in face of constitutional term limits. (Putin went from president to prime minster back to president; Erdogan went from prime minster to president.)
In his day, Silvio Berlusconi lorded over Italy for a decade. In Argentina Cristina Fernández de Kirchner is following the same playbook, although unlike Putin and Erdogan, is leaving office this year as required by law. In Hungary, Viktor Orban seems to have similar pretensions.
To put Netanyahu, who’s now marking his sixth year in power and in the past has been rumors to be eying the President’s House when he tires of being prime minister, in this league is fair, though not entirely fair.
Rogues riding roughshod
Most of this rogue’s gallery have ridden roughshod over democratic norms in a way Netanyahu would never dare.
Bibi did take over the reins of the Communications Ministry, prompting fears he would somehow abuse his power intimidate the broadcast media, but so far there’s no sign of that. Bibi has his semi-official newspaper, Israel Hayom owned by Sheldon Adelson, but the rest of the print media hates him.
In Turkey, by contrast, the government routinely arrests journalists, the Internet has been blocked and the leading daily Hurriyet is under investigation for insulting the president.
It’s how you say ‘No’
The extreme nationalism of Putin, Erdogan and Orban, and the preoccupation with enemies at home and abroad, comes very close to a post-modern kind of fascism.
Bibi made some nasty comments about Israel’s Arab minority during the last elections and is always happy to stress the existential threats Israel faces from enemies. His comments about the danger of Palestinian stone-throwers are overwrought.
But let’s face it, we do have enemies abroad and Bibi’s nationalist rhetoric in restrained compared to his Russian, Turkish and Hungarian peers.
“They’re not just banging on the door, they’re breaking the doors down on top of us. Our borders are under threat. Hungary is under threat and so is the whole of Europe,” Orban said this week.
When asked whether Israel should admit any refugees, Bibi’s answer was: “Israel is not indifferent to the human tragedy of the refugees from Syria and Africa. We have already devotedly cared for approximately 1,000 wounded people from the fighting in Syria. But Israel is a small country, a very small country, that lacks demographic and geographic depth.” Both leaders gave a “no,” but they were a no of a different order.
It’s not so much illiberal tendencies that Bibi shares with this rogues gallery. What he has in common with them is a sense of destiny, that he – and only he – has the ability and talents to lead his nation in the time of crisis it now faces and defeat it enemies.
Netanyahu didn’t start his political career that way. His first stint as prime minster in the 1990s was short and uninspiring, and he only came into his own as an effective champion of free markets as finance minister in 2003-5.
But during his second stint as prime minister in 2009-13, something happened to inflate his ego, quite possibly his personal battle with Barack Obama over settlements, combined with the threats Iran and the Arab Spring posed to Israel.
Bibi was already paranoid and security-obsessed but, as he saw it, the Jewish state faced a Hobbesian world of chaos right over the border, a potentially existential threat from a nuclear-armed Iran and an American ally that was weak and unreliable, maybe even hostile. Israel needed a fighter, and Netanyahu saw himself as the one to do it. He (more or less) saw down Obama over settlements and panicked the world into imposing ever stronger sanctions on Iran with his thinly veiled threats of a military strike.
The fact that he was presiding over a strong economy, in stark contrast to the recession most of the Western world was suffering after 2008, and was facing a weak, feckless opposition likely fed Netanyahu’s ego further.
Surprisingly, as his ego has inflated, his interest in policy has shrunk. The economy was left to his finance ministers and the Bank of Israel. Social policy was designed by economic adviser Manuel Trajtenberg after the 2011 cost-of-living protests. Israel’s foreign policy under Bibi consisted of avoiding doing anything, certainly anything that would advance peace with the Palestinians. The 2015 election was was called not because Israelis wanted a new government, Bibi did.
In fact, as one of its first acts, the new Netanyahu government merrily did away a signal accomplishment of his previous Netanyahu government by reversing policies to force the Haredim into the army and the labor force.
As free-marketier and Mr. Security, Bibi should have been aghast that so much of the population is living off the state and not serving in the army, but Bibi the egoist likes Haredi parties in his coalition because they give him an easy ride. So out went the measures to encourage Haredi employment. Compared to the importance of having Netanyahu as our leader, what’s a little bit of Haredi schnorring at the public expense?
Could this grandiose self-image turn Bibi into a Putin or an Erdogan? Netanyahu doesn’t have much taste for rough and tumble of a free media and democratic politics, but he lacks the audacity of the Russian and Turkish leaders and, more important, Israeli politics are too chaotic for even a determined non-democrat to whittle away at too much of it. More likely, as the last few years of Netanyahu rule have shown, we’ll have a government that does little. Our leader has lost interest making change, but won’t let his underlings do anything either, because achievements by others are a threat to his eternal rule.