Benjamin Netanyahu: Israeli dictator dressed in democrat’s clothing

Faced with protests, allies’ criticism, and international arrest warrants, the Israeli PM is exploiting the pillars of democratic governance to entrench his own autocratic rule. Is he shrewd enough?

Nash Weerasekera/Majalla

Benjamin Netanyahu: Israeli dictator dressed in democrat’s clothing

Israel’s PR people frequently laud it as “the only democracy in the Middle East”. They have repeated it so often that Western media now parrots it unthinkingly.

Those who understand the difference between systems of government, however, would take issue with this statement. Israel’s rulers now exhibit totalitarian tendencies.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is referred to as ‘Bibi’ by his supporters and is known jokingly throughout this parliamentary democracy as ‘King Bibi’. If there were an Israeli crown, he would have worn it for 16 of the past 28 years.

Given his conduct in office of recent months, he increasingly has more in common with the absolute rule of dictatorships than with the politician-as-public-servant model of democracies.

Not only does he support a half-century military occupation and laws that effectively render Arab Israelis second-class citizens in a Jewish state, he also governs with settlers convicted of hate speech against Arabs.

Since he is not a fan of criticism or even constructive feedback, he has also been targeting Israelis critical of the military actions on social media (making Tel Aviv look more like Pyongyang) and has banned foreign media outlets, including one of the biggest Arabic-language news TV network.

A hybrid regime

Under Netanyahu’s embattled leadership, Israeli governance is showing signs of becoming a sophisticated form of authoritarianism, as the man some call ‘the Magician’ smartly manipulates democratic mechanisms.

On the face of it, protests are allowed, parliamentary debates are opinionated, elections are free, and Netanyahu’s government reluctantly abides by judicial rulings. Yet that does not tell the full story.

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While it may be abiding by rulings, his government is also trying to weaken the power and independence of the Supreme Court, something that brought Israelis onto the street in their hundreds of thousands before October 2023.

A democracy is only as good as its system of checks and balances, but once re-elected in December 2022, Netanyahu set about trying to erode them. When the protests grew, right-wing pro-Bibi thugs took to the streets to intimidate demonstrators.

At best, Israel could now be said to be a hybrid regime, blending the democratic with the dictatorial, albeit with the latter increasingly dominant.

Do democracies commit genocide? Oddly, Netanyahu's only criticism of the Israeli military was its decision to pause the Rafah offensive to allow humanitarian aid in. He called this "unacceptable".  

Democratic systems tend to value human rights. They also tend to listen to the people, who—by and large—abhor war. Yet Israel's incumbent government is so war-prone that it does not want the Gaza war to end, despite the devastation and catastrophic suffering.

Democracies are supposed to be governed by law and by humanitarian principles. Israel is increasingly governed by the law of the jungle and the value of vengeance under Netanyahu.

For eight months, Israelis have been inculcated with the idea that everyone in Gaza is a terrorist. Shielded from images or news of the suffering, they think the coastal strip has no Palestinian victims, only Israeli hostages and the fallen heroes.

Read more: Feeling lost in Jerusalem? It's called Palestinian self-demolitions

In a recent operation to free four hostages, almost 300 were killed and 700 injured, staggering numbers, yet Israeli media praised the "heroic, surgical operation", lauding the bravery of Israeli soldiers while omitting Palestinian casualty figures.

In the study of warfare, mass killings are found to be more prevalent in ethnic conflicts or 'identity struggles' than in political or ideological armed conflicts. Moreover, the nature of the governing regime significantly influences the occurrence of mass killings, ethnic cleansing, and, potentially, genocide.

In Israel, which is led by extremists who hate Palestinians and Arabs in general and want to annex the occupied West Bank in whole, there have even been calls to use tactical nuclear weapons to "wipe out" Gaza.

Such commentators often imbibe of Netanyahu's political rhetoric designed to exploit religious zeal and gain support from radical religious Zionism.

Democracy's four pillars

Whether pre-emptive or defensive, democracies often can struggle to mobilise public support for war because it can be so difficult to justify war on moral grounds. Leaders in non-democracies have no such qualms or restrictions.

A genuinely free press, often referred to as 'the Fourth Estate', can be a critical check in the run-up to war. There is no such hope in authoritarian regimes. Likewise, political parties in democracies are often very cautious about risking voter anger by pursuing unilateral military action if it goes against public sentiment.

By way of example, Tony Blair was a very popular British prime minister, but voters never forgave his decision to take the country to war in Iraq, when there had been such a vivid demonstration of public will against it.

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Workers hang a billaboard showing Benny Gantz and Netanyahu, as part of an election campaign in 2020

In Israel, the powerful military sensor is something that every journalist from abroad quickly learns about. That is, if they get the press card. Concerns about compliance may mean they do not get that far.

Thereafter, any article about the war or Israel's armed forces must be submitted to the censor prior to publication. Alhough that does not always happen in reality, but the very existence of this clause sounds intimidating.

Jewish and Jewish only

Democracy rests upon four fundamental pillars: free elections, freedom of expression and of the press, freedom of assembly, and the rule of law. Yet law in Israel distinguishes between its citizens and perpetuates racial and sectarian discrimination.

One of the most egregious examples of this Jewish supremacy was the 2018 Jewish 'Nation-State Law'. This is now a Basic Law and part of the legal system as the country does not have a written constitution.

Amir Ohana, the politician who introduced the law, said it makes clear "that everyone has human rights, but national rights in Israel belong only to the Jewish people". Yariv Levin, a minister who backed it, called it "Zionism's flagship bill".

If this is "the only democracy in the Middle East", it is not much of a role model.

The law says Israel is a Jewish state, with a Jewish character, and explicitly prioritises collective Jewish rights over the individual political rights granted to Arab citizens based on their citizenship status. This goes against Israel's founding principles.

Netanyahu's idea of 'national honour' demands unwavering national allegiance to him, the leader, stigmatising anyone who dares question him. Yet the concept of 'honour' seems fairly fluid, since it was only recently that his political allies were being sent out to seek his legal immunity from corruption charges.

Read more: The Palestinian state: When good intentions aren't good enough

As the German economist and political scientist Joseph Schumpeter once famously remarked: "You cannot fool all of the people all of the time, but you can fool enough of the people for long enough to do irreversible damage."

Netanyahu has sown the seeds of division for so long that they have sprouted and taken root. He has embraced extremists and racists, granted privileges and tax breaks to religious factions and settlers, prolonged the war in Gaza, ignored calls for his resignation, failed to negotiate the release of most hostages, and been issued with an arrest warrant from the Chief Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court.

He plays the persecuted victim, not only of international courts but of a 'deep state' conspiracy orchestrated by the left, while simultaneously trying to subvert the independence of Israel's institutions. If this is "the only democracy in the Middle East", it is not much of a role model.

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