Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Netanyahu’s Return: The Success of Radical Populism

By Netanyahu’s logic, any peace deal based on equality between an Israeli and a Palestinian state is outright rejected.

Netanyahu’s Return
Israeli right wing Knesset member Itamar ben Gvir (R) chats with incoming Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (L) during the swearing-in’s ceremony of the new Israeli government at the Knesset (Israeli parliament) in Jerusalem, on November 15, 2022. ABIR SULTAN/AFP

Ali Noureddine

This article was translated from Arabic.

Israel’s far-right camp, led by former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, emerged victorious in the Knesset elections, securing 64 seats out of 120 as per the results announced by the Israeli Elections Commission earlier in November.

Their rivals the Change Camp, led by Yair Lapid, managed to win no more than 51 seats, paving the way for Netanyahu’s return through a decisive majority that guarantees him a comfortable return to power as prime minister for the third time.

Netanyahu and the ideology of the populist far right

Israel’s main right-wing movement, the Likud party, constitutes the bulk of the camp led by Netanyahu. However, it also includes the Religious Zionist Party (Tkuma), described as a fanatical nationalist movement that believes Palestinians should be dealt with through military and security actions.

Also included in the camp are the Shas party for the religious Easterners and United Torah Judaism for the religious Westerners. Both of these represent the ultra-Orthodox communities that strongly advocate [illegal] settlement construction in the West Bank and Jerusalem.

The resulting Israeli government is expected to have a hardline stance in regard to Palestinian matters. Among these are settlement and security measures in the West Bank, the status of Jerusalem, the relationship with the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah, and the blockade imposed on the Gaza Strip.

Without a doubt, these developments will create complications that hamper any progress in the long-stalled peace process.

This political camp’s ideological foundations and populist ideas are clarified in Netanyahu’s writings and theories. Despite the varying priorities and great ideological diversity within this camp, Netanyahu employed his longstanding political vision to find common ground that allowed him to build his far-right coalition.

He unapologetically exploited his audience’s concerns and emotions, fashioning himself into a model of extreme populism that swayed public opinion in his favor during the elections.

Two books authored by Netanyahu best illustrate his political views: The first is “A Place Among the Nations: Israel and the World,” originally published in English before being reissued in Hebrew in Israel under the title “A Place Under the Sun.”

The second, “Bibi: My Story,” which was released only two weeks before this year’s elections, unmistakably aided the far-right movement in the polls.

Based on Netanyahu’s view of Israel and the world, one can forecast the policies of the upcoming Israeli administration through these two books.

They also chronicle Netanyahu’s rhetoric, which he used to boost his popularity despite numerous corruption scandals and the continuing legal probes.

“A Place Among The Nations”

In “A Place Among the Nations,” Netanyahu presents his own vision of the [so-called] Arab-Israeli conflict and his views regarding its scope.

Like all populist narratives, he begins his book by chastising his political rivals in Israel with inferring language, alleging that Arab anti-Zionist propaganda infiltrating Israeli society is what gave rise to the Israeli left.

According to Netanyahu, by signing the Oslo Accords on September 13, 1993, the Israeli left made compromises that endangered Israel’s very existence.

Netanyahu opposes the Oslo Accords and any measure that would end Israeli settlements or give the Palestinians their own state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

For the incoming prime minister, a Palestinian state on the heights and mountains of the West Bank, with Israel withdrawing to the narrow coastal strip facing them, would constitute an imminent security, military and existential threat.

By this logic, any peace deal based on equality between an Israeli and a Palestinian state is outright rejected.

By inflating the military and security risks, Netanyahu rejects the notion of withdrawing from the Golan Heights, a highly strategic military outpost that could pose a threat to Israel if abandoned, according to the Likud leader.

Additionally, he rejects the idea of peace agreements between Israel and Arab nations, arguing that these nations’ “lack of democratic systems could allow the breakout of hostilities according to the whims of their rulers.”

What Netanyahu fails to mention is that a number of these states have already signed peace treaties with Israel, some of which have been in force for decades (e.g.: Egypt and Jordan).

Netanyahu’s ultimate goal is to keep the West Bank under Israeli occupation and increase settlement activity without granting the indigenous Palestinians a state of their own.

Due to demographic considerations, he also expresses no intention of annexing Palestinian territories or granting Palestinians citizenship rights in Israel.

Simply put, Netanyahu wants Israel to remain an occupying power while keeping the Palestinians in the West Bank in an unsettled situation that is inconsistent with international law.

And while he desires normalization with neighboring Arab states, he expresses distrust in treaties and in the states themselves. In fact, he believes that Israeli rule and hegemony, which alone can enforce stability, is the only way to achieve lasting peace with the Palestinians or the Arabs.

As such, Netanyahu serves as a flagrant illustration of the extreme nationalist populism that prevails in many nations.

Such movements frequently rely on the notion that there are impending existential threats that can only be averted by maintaining a superior military and security position, even if that means breaking international law or violating the rights of others.

Lasting peace is impossible except according to the rule of the victor and the vanquished, which requires that a nation permanently remain in a state of hostility and conflict with its surroundings.

Furthermore, governments that previously concluded peace treaties are deemed as acting against the interests of the nation and working for the enemy, even if unintentionally, according to Netanyahu.

“Bibi: My story”

While “A Place Among Nations” presented Netanyahu’s theoretical vision of the so-called Arab-Israeli conflict, “Bibi: My Story” showcases Netanyahu’s memoirs and his experience in politics.

In “Bibi,” Netanyahu explains how he mirrored the tactics of ultra-conservative Republicans in the US by identifying the top concerns and fears of voters and positioning his electoral campaigns accordingly.

He identified “dividing Jerusalem” as the primary fear of Israelis and crafted his election campaign to cater to that concern by emphasizing the risks of the city being divided in the event that the Israeli liberals and leftists were to win.

Similar to the majority of populist leaders, Netanyahu has adopted a calibrated strategy, seeking for allies among the far-right parties in Western nations whenever these governments are headed by individuals with lukewarm sentiments toward him.

He adopted similar strategies under the administrations of US presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, trading his contentious ties with them for a relationship with conservative lawmakers who were more sympathetic to the worries of the Israeli far right.

To gain the respect of Congressmen, he repeatedly emphasized the dangers that Israel faces from all sides and that stand in the way of a lasting peace with its neighbors.

The strongest diplomatic ties that Netanyahu was successful in establishing also include non-democratic leaders, such as Chinese President Xi Jinping, former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, and Russian President Vladimir Putin.

With regard to Western leaders, he enjoyed success cultivating relations with figures from the conservative extreme right, including US President Donald Trump, former Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, and former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi.

Beyond these, enduring and reliable ties with the vast majority of Western or Arab leaders remain elusive.

Netanyahu’s works and biography undoubtedly reflect the political vocabulary used by ultra-nationalist parties, whether in terms of their diplomatic relations with other countries or their domestic policies.

The parallels between Netanyahu’s policies and those of nationalist populist politicians in many other countries continue to be intriguing.

These parallels illustrate that such an ideology feeds on fear and collective national concerns, while thriving amid shrinking opportunities for peace and the expansion of regional conflicts.

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