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Ithamar Handelman-Smith

Ithamar Handelman- Smith is a British writer, columnist, filmmaker, and playwright based in London. His worked is published in both English and Hebrew. 

benjamin-netanyahu eyes closed
Benjamin Netanyahu
Campaign posters after the general election in Israel 2019
Trailer for the documentary "King Bibi"

Israel’s Bibi, the avant-gardist of the contemporary populist disease

9 min

Israel’s Bibi, the avant-gardist of the contemporary populist disease

On April 9th, the ugliest and dirtiest election campaign Israel has seen so far, was over. It was basically the same fake-lies&bots-game of shame, Western democracies are struggling with lately. On the morning after, centrist and left-wing supporters woke up with a hangover to an Israeli election groundhog day. Benjamin Netanyahu – or Bibi, as everyone calls him in Israel – was up for his fifth term; this time, with a coalition comprised of his own party and its nationalistic and religious allies – forming an even stronger coalition majority than in the previous term. Why did he win again? To answer that, let’s look back to the beginning of the race.   

On Monday, January 7th, the Israeli public was on alert, waiting for a “dramatic announcement” by the Prime Minister. The televised event, which was more of a speech than a press-conference, as journalists were not allowed to ask questions, was used by Bibi to contest corruption allegations. Later this year, the Attorney General is expected to indict the Prime Minister on charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust – something Netanyahu referred to as a “left-wing conspiracy” to overthrow him in an “undemocratic manner”. Netanyahu railed against anything that stood in his way, from his political opponents and the police, to the public prosecutor and the supreme court. He demanded to meet in front of the camera with the state witness of the case, which of course was rejected. The tone for the campaign of his nationalistic party, the “Likud”, was set: blaming everyone who is not “on their side” for all the faults of Israeli society, and accusing without integrity entire constituencies – from the liberal Tel Aviv central-left to the Arab communities – as traitors and even “terror supporters”.

The political wizard, that he is, Bibi had broken up his governing coalition upon the pretext of a dispute with one of Likud’s allies, went for an early election, in a bid for a bigger majority for his government, and –  this might be the next step in order to rescue himself – try then to install the so-called French law, that protects a sitting prime minister from prosecution. Bibi knew too well, that he is grappling with a disadvantaged opposition, due to one of his biggest propagandistic achievements – the demonization of the Israeli Zionist Left. Over the course of his 12-year premiership, the Hebrew word for Leftie became synonymous with “traitor”.  Consequently, no political party, other than the tiny Zionist socialist party “Meretz”, dares to define itself as “left-wing”. Even not the central-left Labor party, which totally crashed. The movement of the murdered peace-maker and novel-price-bearer Itzchak Rabin and the social democratic founding father icon David Ben-Gurion, who ruled Israel throughout the 50’s and 60’s, shrank to a depressing 5 percent low, as their voters were flocking to the generals.   

The generals? Some analysts were jokingly talking of a military putsch, while referring to the alpha-team behind the newly founded centrist party Blue and White (the colors not only of the usually summerly sea and sky along Israel’s coastline but also those of the Israeli flag), led by former IDF (Israeli Defense Forces) Chief of Staff, General Benny Gantz, furthermore by a charismatic former TV-journalist and – two other former Chiefs of Staffs. Together, these four middle-aged men were looking sternly from the huge Blue and White election posters into their electorate’s eyes, posing the only serious challenge to Netanyahu’s victory. But the dire warnings of three former military leaders to a nation, which would not exist without its military: that Netanyahu is a liar and eventually corrupted, a danger to Israeli democracy, who divides the country; all that was not enough to undermine the religious and nationalistic majority. Knowing he had the left-wing vote in the bag, Benny Gantz’s campaign took on increasingly aggressive messaging to attract voters away from the right. In one video, for instance, Gantz bragged about his achievements as a commander during the 2014 Israel-Gaza conflict, during which about 1300 Palestinians were killed. Apart from this, Bibi was constantly criticized as not being tough enough towards the rocket attacks of Hamas, the Islamist terror organization, that is subjugating Gaza. But despite these efforts, most right wingers stuck to Mr. Netanyahu, and the Likud party won the largest number of seats they ever held in parliament, though neck to neck with Blue and White. They absorbed most of the majority of votes by the other half of the electorate, which was united by the one and only slogan: Just not Bibi again. 

As corruption cases against him mount, the love and trust of Netanyahu’s massive fan only just grows stronger. Out of historical mistrust against the European socialist labor party, dominated by the privileged East European Jews of the first Zionist waves of immigration in the first half of the 20th century, by whom they felt mistreated throughout the 50s, 60s and 70s, the majority of Oriental Middle Eastern Jewish immigrants and their descendants traditionally vote for the nationalistic Likud. This constituency is overlapping in great parts of with the working poor, the less educated, those who long for a strong man’s hand, and those identifying themselves with the arrogant and paranoid middle-finger Bibi shows his fantasized foes – the media, the judges, the establishment, which, to their assessment, never did much to raise their life-quality and social status.

Reminds you of the mad man in the White House and his constituency of ‘deplorables’, as Hillary once said in a slip of tongue? Well, Benjamin Netanyahu was there first, long before watershed political events in recent years took place – the defeat of Hillary Clinton, the Brexit craziness, the electoral success of Italy’s Five Star Movement and Brazil’s sudden shift to the far-right. Israel could be seen as forerunner of worldwide populism, and Netanyahu as the avant-gardist of the popular, charismatic, reality-show style leader. Since he took over more than a decade ago, the public discourse in his country became increasingly nationalistic, xenophobic, and militant.

In his new documentary “King Bibi”, which was broadcasted on ARTE at the eve of the elections, Israeli director Dan Shadur follows Netanyahu’s rise to power through four decades of public appearances. Relying solely on archival footage of Netanyahu’s media performances, spanning a career of some 40 years, the film shows how the Israeli Prime Minister understood the political benefits of creating a toxic relationship with the media and communicating directly with the public long before Facebook, Twitter, and the spectacle of the Trump-presidency.

Shadur’s documentary portrays the making of Bibi by himself in his early American years. For instance, after changing his career from furniture sales promoter to politician, Netanyahu autodidactically exercised “7 steps for fearless speaking by Lilian Wilder”, an audio-tutorial on audio cassettes in the 80’s. As well known, Hitler, too, started his career by self-taught acting in front of an audience. In our opinion, it is legitimate to put these two figures under a comparative analysis, given the eagerness seen in both of them to learn how to theatrically address the masses and to gain followers, the paranoia that nourishes their charismatic mission, and their power to convince their listeners. In order to learn from the faults of history, we should not overlook these striking similarities, contributing to the rise of Bibi. It is not helpful to view Hitler as a taboo, an unhuman monster, an incomparable phenomenon. Bibi will, of course, never turn out as a bloodthirsty dictator, who throws his adversaries into prisons and builds death-camps. Only anti-Semitically motivated, antizionist extremists would maintain such nonsense. Netanyahu nevertheless, belongs to the category of populists, who manipulate their nation with lies and stigmatize the free press as lying press, such as Hitler, Stalin and Mao – the big mass-murderers of the 20th century, Chavez and Maduro, the destroyers of Venezuela, and Russia’s Putin – who, instead of continuing to sit in the Kremlin and thwart progress in Russia, should be sued at the international court of Justice in The Hague for complicity in the war-crimes of Syrian’s dictator Assad. 

These are the Zombies standing on the wrong side of history. Likewise Bibi and his sympathizers Trump, Orban, Salvini, and Bolsonaro; they may not be murderous, are by far less vicious and, principally, stick to the democratic rules; yet – as we pointed out in our recent piece, – they bear the same irrationally poisoned mindset of refugee-paranoia as the assailant of the Pittsburgh synagogue or his even more successful colleague, who committed the massacre at the Christchurch mosque and became a youtube-star by filming with his head-cam his shooting people to death. The members of the liberal-leaning, reform-religious Jewish Congregration, who were attacked and murdered for taking a stand for refugees; on the political landscape they are on the side of the of the few percent smaller half of the Israeli population, who loathes to have Bibi as head of government and of the 70 percent of US-American Jewry, who vote for the Democratic party and reject Israel’s right wing policies. 

By coincidence, a day after Bibi’s victory, Sudan’s Omar al-Bashir, the perpetrator of the Genocide in Darfur between 2003 and 2008 was ousted from his office after weeks of ongoing mass-protests. The Save Darfur Coalition, who invoked the Western world in those years to stop the killings, was carried on mainly by liberal, Jewish American NGOs, who applied the post-Holocaust Never Again principal not only to their own brethren, but to any other people ( joined this movement in 2007 with a German initiative). Nowadays, a few thousands Darfuri refugees are living in Israel, tolerated by most of its citizens, supported by a number of NGOs, but struggling with the difficulties imposed on them by a xenophobic Israeli government, who profits from right-wing incitement against them. One day Bibi will be history, hopefully sooner than later.

A shorter version of this text has been published in the opinion section of

Israel’s Bibi, the avant-gardist of the contemporary populist disease

9 min