Editor’s Note: Anshel Pfeffer (@anshelpfeffer) is a writer for Ha’aretz and the Israel correspondent of The Economist. He is the author of “Bibi: The Turbulent Life and Times of Benjamin Netanyahu.” The views expressed here are his own. Read more opinion on CNN.
On Sunday afternoon, Benjamin Netanyahu went full Donald Trump. Facing a new coalition, led by his former protégé Naftali Bennett, with the seats needed to replace him as Israel’s prime minister, Netanyahu went on the attack.
“We are witnessing the greatest election fraud in the history of the country, in my opinion in the history of any democracy,” he said in a meeting with his Likud faction. Sounds familiar?
So does the next bit. “We, my friends and I in Likud, we will vehemently oppose the establishment of this dangerous government of fraud and surrender,” Netanyahu thundered.
But he was also prepared to accept at least temporary defeat. “And if, God forbid, it is established, we will bring it down very quickly.”
Given the similarity in Netanyahu and Trump’s rhetoric, it’s worth asking: Is Israel about to face its own January 6, with thousands of armed right-wing militia members storming the Knesset, the Israeli Parliament, before the new government is likely sworn-in on Sunday?
Probably not. However, Shin Bet, Israel’s internal security agency, felt the need on Saturday night to issue a rare public warning against the toxic discourse and incitement to violence, especially on social media.
As of now, though, there are no signs of any widespread plan to physically obstruct the transfer of power this weekend. But even if Israel is saved the spectacle of a Capitol Hill-like insurrection, the resilience of its democracy has been sorely tested in the latter years of the Netanyahu era, and like in the US, its core institutions have had to fight back and safeguard basic principles.
Of course, Netanyahu and his remaining allies will keep up the pressure on potential defectors from the new coalition, as they have been doing for weeks now. But the torrent of verbal abuse – online and in protests outside politicians’ homes – coupled with discreet inducements to the wavering members of the new government is unlikely to escalate much further. And so far, at least, it seems to be failing.
It looks like Netanyahu, unless he persuades a surprise defector, will leave office next week, peacefully but without the semblance of grace. The sight of a second populist leader being forced to leave office following a hard-fought election (in Israel’s case, following four consecutive elections) within the space of six months should be instructive.
What the current wave of populist leaders around the world share in common is their populist rhetoric of “us” – the “people” versus “the establishment” – the “elitist traitors” and their “foreign” supporters. They also share an instinctive capability to identify the phobias and the resentments of their base, and are adept at stoking them – building angry coalitions of fear, of loss of privilege and disenfranchisement.
Beyond that, however, every populist is different.
Netanyahu, unlike Trump, is both a professional politician and an intellectual. That is how he succeeded in staging political comebacks – despite earlier setbacks and defeats in his career, defying the pundits’ predictions and the polls, and ultimately becoming Israel’s longest-serving prime minister.
That’s how he succeeded in shifting a diplomatic paradigm – the assumption that Israel would never enjoy economic prosperity and have strong relations with countries both in the region and around the world, if it did not make the necessary concessions to solve its conflict with the Palestinians, has been proven false. The Israeli economy has grown and, with the assistance of the Trump administration, Netanyahu has made peace with several Arab and Muslim neighbors.
For Netanyahu, populism is just a tool to be used for electoral purposes. Behind it, though, there’s a sophisticated and deeply thought-out strategy.
But his strategy for perpetuating his hold on power has ultimately failed, as did Trump’s populism, because it didn’t take into account the resilience of Israel’s democracy-guarding institutions – the legal establishment, the media and the electoral system. He tried to subvert each of these and was only partially successful.
Netanyahu seemingly thought that by appointing a friendly attorney general and a convenient national police commissioner, he would be immune from investigation and prosecution. But in both cases, their professionalism – and those of their teams – won out. His alleged corruption came to light. Despite remaining in office until now, Netanyahu has been indicted and is on trial for bribery, fraud and breach of trust charges. (He has pleaded not guilty to all charges.)
He allegedly tried to bully both journalists and their publishers. He encouraged supportive tycoons, like the late Sheldon Adelson, to set up their own newspapers and stations in the hope of driving critical new organizations out of business. Some in the media sold out, but enough kept on going to provide the public with the full picture of events.
And he tried to impugn the electoral system, claiming that it was rife with fraud perpetrated by Arab citizens, but elections continued to be held transparently and with high public trust in their results. It finally yielded a majority that not only prevented Netanyahu from forming a new government of his own, but was capable of working together to replace him.
In Israel and in the US, the institutions persevered, outlasted populist leaders and helped bring about their downfall. But the resilience of these institutions cannot be taken for granted – they require strengthening now that the threat has passed, perhaps only temporarily.