In close election, Netanyahu relies on ‘us versus them’

Being on the wrong side of Wonder Woman may not seem to be a smart move, but past experience shows Benjamin Netanyahu was well aware of what he was doing.

An argument that put the prime minister at odds with Israeli actress Gal Gadot, who played Wonder Woman in the Hollywood blockbuster, was one example of the pre-election populist rhetoric that has become his trademark.

As Israel approaches an April 9 general election, Netanyahu is again resorting to right-wing populism that critics say amounts to the demonisation of Arab Israelis and others to appeal to his support base.

The social media dispute that drew in Gadot was one in which Netanyahu faced an outcry over his comments regarding Arab Israelis.

Some analysts expect more to come in the campaign’s final days as Netanyahu fights a close election under the threat of indictment for corruption.

“What you’re probably going to see is him exacerbating the polarisation — us versus them,” said Reuven Hazan, political science professor at Jerusalem’s Hebrew University.

“He realises that this is a battle for his survival.”

On election day in 2015, Netanyahu infamously warned that Arab voters were going to the polls “in droves” — and, according to state investigators, made sure a news website featured the video.

This year, he has continually sought to convince voters that his main opponent, former military chief Benny Gantz, would ally with Arab political parties.

As part of that argument, he has used the catchphrase that the election is a choice between “Bibi or Tibi” — using his own nickname and referring to prominent Israeli Arab politician Ahmad Tibi, a staunch anti-Zionist.

Israeli Arabs, the descendants of Palestinians who remained on their land following the creation of Israel, account for some 17.5% of the country’s population.

‘His main motive’ 

Sawsan Zaher, deputy director general of Adalah, a legal centre for Israel’s Arab minority, said the rhetoric amounted to “not only racism, but even intentional racism”.

“And what will this incitement lead to on the ground and on the streets against Arabs?” Zaher asked.

Some analysts say they see Netanyahu’s rhetoric less as expressions of his true beliefs than as bare-knuckled politics.

Israeli politics has moved sharply to the right in recent years, with much of the electorate disillusioned by failed peace efforts with the Palestinians.

As one example of Netanyahu’s opportunism, analysts point to a deal he brokered with the extreme-right Jewish Power party which many see as racist to try to ease its way into parliament.

The agreement drew widespread disgust, but Netanyahu defended it by saying he needed to ensure no right-wing votes go to waste as he eyes his next coalition.

“His true stand is to keep his prime ministership and to get away from going to jail,” said Gideon Rahat of the Israel Democracy Institute think tank. “That’s his main motive.”

Netanyahu and his right-wing Likud party are in a tough fight with the centrist alliance led by Gantz.

Recent opinion polls show Gantz’s Blue and White slightly ahead, though far short of an outright majority.

Much may depend on post-poll negotiations to form a coalition, but in the meantime Netanyahu appears to be leaving little to chance.

He has echoed the tactics of his ally US President Donald Trump by castigating the police who investigated him and the news media that have reported on it.

He has also highlighted his bond with Trump as part of his efforts to portray himself as Israel’s irreplaceable statesman.

‘Bring them on’ 

But his comments on a law passed last year declaring Israel the nation-state of the Jewish people have been among his most divisive.

Last month, in response to social media comments by another Israeli actress, Rotem Sela, Netanyahu said the country was “not a state of all its citizens” in a reference to Arab Israelis.

“According to the basic nationality law we passed, Israel is the nation-state of the Jewish people — and only it,” he wrote on Instagram.

“As you wrote, there is no problem with the Arab citizens of Israel. They have equal rights like all of us and the Likud government has invested more in the Arab sector than any other government.”

Gadot of Wonder Woman fame later defended Sela on her own Instagram account, calling for “tolerance of one towards the other.”

For Netanyahu, the attention given to the dispute may have been exactly what he wanted.

“This is like Trump taking on somebody from the entertainment industry in the US,” said Hazan.

“It’s like ‘bring them on. Come on. Make my day.'”

Hazan said Arab Israelis were not the only target of Netanyahu’s rhetoric.

“Anyone who is not part of his political camp is by definition a traitor.”

Hazan cited Netanyahu’s attempts to label Gantz’s alliance leftist and “weak” — even though it includes three former armed forces chiefs of staff.

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Mike Smith
Mike Smith 1
Mike Smith is the AFP news editor for Israel and the Palestinian Territories and author of Boko Haram: Inside Nigeria's Unholy War.

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