Benjamin Netanyahu, Father of our Illiberal Age

To understand Benjamin Netanyahu’s legacy, not just for Israel-Palestine, but for the world, it’s worth going back to a fascinating shadow debate that Netanyahu conducted with Barack Obama about the course of history. Throughout his presidency, Obama kept telling Netanyahu that Israel’s control over millions of stateleless Palestinians was “unsustainable.” It was unsustainable, Obama believed, because the world was becoming less tolerant of colonialism and racism. In classic progressive fashion, Obama saw history as a story of moral progress. Yes, positive change was messy, it took enormous effort, there was backsliding. But in the Martin Luther King phrase that Obama loved to quote, “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

Netanyahu wasn’t the only recipient of these lectures about the nature of history: Obama directed them to Vladimir Putin, Xi Jinping, and other illiberal leaders as well. But Netanyahu is the son of a historian and fancies himself an amateur historian. (In a 2015 discussion at the American Enterprise Institute, the Israeli leader told the audience to read Will Durant’s The Story of Civilization, all twelve volumes). And so Netanyahu answered Obama back. In essence, he said that Obama’s story of progress was wrong. The future belonged not to liberalism as Obama defined it—tolerance, equal rights, and the rule of law—but to authoritarian capitalism: governments that combined aggressive and often racist nationalism with economic and technological might. The future, Netanyahu implied, would produce leaders who resembled not Obama, but him.

Now, as Netanyahu’s twelve years in power come to an end, there’s reason to believe that he was right. Over the last decade, leaders in his mold have sprung up across the globe. When Netanyahu returned as Israel’s prime minister in 2009, his chauvinistic, free market hyper-nationalism appeared anachronistic. Then, the following year, Viktor Orban reclaimed the prime ministership of Hungary. In 2012, Putin returned as President of Russia and Xi became General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party. In 2014, Narendra Modi became prime minister of India. In 2017, Donald Trump became president of the United States. In 2019, Jair Bolsonaro became president of Brazil. All of a sudden, Netanyahu was elder statesman of a club of authoritarian, populist bigots. That’s his global legacy. In Israel-Palestine, Netanyahu will be remembered for having dug the two-state solution’s grave. But internationally, he’s done something bigger: He’s helped to father our illiberal age.

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In Netanyahu, one can discern the key elements that now menace liberal democracy across the world.

First, resentment. Netanyahu, like many populist autocrats, sees himself as an outsider. His father, Benzion, was a revisionist Zionist, a disciple of Vladimir Jabotinsky at a time when the Labor Party and its socialist Zionism dominated Israeli politics and culture. As Ben Caspit and Ilan Kfir note in their book, Netanyahu: The Road to Power, Benjamin Netanyahu grew up believing that Labor elites had denied his father an academic job in Israel—a rejection that forced Benzion to raise his family in the United States. So, like Trump, who felt scorned by tony Manhattanites, Netanyahu—although raised in relative privilege­—nurtured a cultural resentment that helped him appeal to others who considered themselves outsiders: For instance, the Jews from Arab lands who had long felt excluded by the Labor establishment.

The second perspective that Netanyahu shares with other contemporary autocrats is his faith in capitalism. After graduating from MIT with a master’s degree in business, Netanyahu worked as a management consultant. And among his proudest accomplishments in politics—both during his two stints as prime minister and during his time as finance minister under Ariel Sharon—were helping to turn Israel from a socialist economy to the neo-liberal “startup nation” it is today. It’s easy to see the parallels with Modi in India, who has vanquished the socialistic Congress Party, or Bolsonaro, who led a revolt against his leftist predecessors, Lula Da Silva and Dilma Rousseff. Like them, Netanyahu has made the combination of deregulated capitalism and aggressive nationalism a feature of our age.

Third, like many hyper-nationalists, Netanyahu has portrayed himself as the only figure strong enough to prevent his people from being preyed upon by foreign powers. Every Israeli leader talks about anti-Semitism and the Holocaust. But Netanyahu, from his early days in politics, has told the Jewish story in a particular way. Jews, he’s argued, have a cultural tendency toward political naivete and weakness, which he attributes to centuries of living without an army and a state. In his 2000 book, A Durable Peace, Netanyahu wrote, “whereas many other peoples have been able to distinguish between the ideal vision of human existence and the way the affairs of nations must be conducted in the present, the Jewish people has had a harder time accepting this separation. The Jews have such an acute sense of what mankind should be that they often act as though it is virtually there already.”

This narrative—which depicts other nations as ruthless and brutal and one’s own as innocent and abused—is typical of today’s autocrats. Near the core of Trump’s “America First” message was his claim that the US had been swindled and exploited by tougher, savvier nations. For Netanyahu, as for Trump, this narrative of mistreatment offers a justification for finally “getting tough,” which means freeing one’s actions from moral and legal restraints. It’s a great narrative to peddle if you want to rationalize the wholesale violation of human rights.

Fourth, Netanyahu, like Trump, Modi, Orban and others, defines his allegedly persecuted country not as comprising everyone who lives within its borders, but as representing a particular ethnic, religious, or racial group. That’s particularly easy in Israel, which explicitly defines itself as a Jewish state. But even compared to other Israeli politicians, Netanyahu stands out for having bluntly told Israel’s Palestinian-Arab citizens—let alone the millions of stateless Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip—that they do not belong. As finance minister, he boasted that his cuts to welfare spending had reduced the Palestinian birthrate. In 2015, he famously warned that Arab citizens were going to the polls “in droves.” And in a Durable Peace, Netanyahu favorably quotes Winston Churchill as saying that “left to themselves, the Arabs of Palestine would not in a thousand years have taken steps toward the irrigation and electrification of Palestine.” If Trump, Modi, Orban and Bolsonaro have made bigotry towards portions of their own population a prominent feature of our age, Netanyahu helped blaze the trail.

Fifth, Netanyahu, like demagogues across the ages, has long been obsessed with propaganda. Caspit and Kfir note that as Israel’s political attaché in Washington in the early 1980s, Netanyahu rented TV cameras and taped himself conducting mock interviews. When he became Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations later that decade, he employed two American media advisors. Long before Trump built his presidency on his use of Twitter, Netanyahu built his career on his use of television. And, like Trump, Netanyahu’s communication style has always included large doses of lying. From the British officials who nicknamed Bibi “the armor-plated bullshitter” to Bill Clinton aide Joe Lockhart, who recalled that Netanyahu “could open his mouth and you could have no confidence that anything that came out of it was the truth” to Netanyahu’s own former aide, Limor Livnat, who Caspit and Kfir quote as saying that, “You cannot believe a word he says,” people who dealt with Netanyahu have long noted his fraught relationship with the truth. Which helps explain why, when prosecuted for corruption, Netanyahu responded with a campaign of brazen deceit that threatened to delegitimize Israel’s judicial system.

The irony is that Netanyahu has long seen himself as this era’s Winston Churchill, the man courageous enough to stare evil in the face when other leaders preferred appeasement. The two men do have things in common: Churchill was a racist too. But, nonetheless, Churchill helped lead a global coalition that defended liberal democracy in its hour of peril. Netanyahu has done something closer to the opposite: He has helped to lead the coalition of authoritarians that now imperils liberal democracy across the globe.

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On our Zoom call this Friday for paid subscribers, I’ll be talking to Yehuda Kurtzer, President of the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America, host of the Identity/Crisis podcast and co-editor of The New Jewish Canon. I invited Yehuda because he’s been critical of my support for one equal state in Israel-Palestine, and of the left’s view of Israel-Palestine more generally. I think folks on the call will be challenged by Yehuda’s perspective, and will challenge his in turn. I believe in talking, respectfully, to folks with whom I disagree. So I’m excited for the call. Subscribe and join us. We’ll send out the Zoom link to subscribers on Wednesday.

Naftali Bennett, part 1: If want to understand Israel’s new prime minister, this Haaretz profile by Anshel Pfeffer is a good place to start.

Naftali Bennett, part II: This 2017 interview that Bennett did with Mehdi Hasan is entertaining, if you can avoid sticking a fork in your eye. At around 15 minutes, 44 seconds, Bennett asks Mehdi to “give me the name of one Palestinian who was living in a home and had his home taken away from him? That is a flat lie. I challenge you. Give me the name.” As I said, watch without sharp objects nearby.

Naftali Bennett, part III: If that’s not enough for you, check out this longer conversation that Bennett did with Martin Indyk at the Brookings Institution in 2014. It’s revealing, and disturbing, not only about Bennett but about how Washington insiders talked about Israel-Palestine in the Obama era. I suspect the discussion would be quite different today, mostly in good ways. Then again, in 2014 barely anyone thought Bennett would one day become prime minister.     

In Jewish Currents, Yousef Munayyer explains and defends the term “Palestine, from the river to the sea.” (Consider subscribing).

A brief but powerful statement about the parallels between Israel and apartheid South Africa from two former Israeli ambassadors to South Africa.

I was interviewed last week by the leaders of a Massachusetts interfaith group called Critical Connections for an event entitled, “Palestinian Rights, Jewish Responsibility.”

While everyone in Washington was condemning Representative Ilhan Omar last week for (allegedly) comparing Israel to Hamas, Hamas condemned her for comparing them to Israel. You can’t make this stuff up.

See you Friday,

Peter