“It’s a gift, but it’s wrapped in barbed wire,” the acclaimed Flemish writer David Van Reybrouk told Politico this week. He was talking about populism. As his succinct analogy was published, the Collins Dictionary announced that “Brexit” was its word of the year. The debate about whether Brexit is popular or populist continues to rage in Britain. Those saying that it is populist are the “Remainers”; those who say it is popular are the “Brexiteers”. The only aspect about which both sides agree is that “populist” possesses a pejorative meaning that any serious politician does not want to be associated with.
That explains the use of the term so frequently against European leaders like Marine Le Pen — who seems to be perennially on the cusp of taking French politics back to its far-right tendencies — or Viktor Orban, the demagogue of Budapest; or even Geert van Wilders, whose pastimes include bullying Muslims and defending his right to smear any and all Moroccans in court. This trio are the bad guys of European politics; the benchmark against which other right-wing parties are measured, and to whose level they must not sink.
Such right-wingers are useful in that they provide a comparative level of evil; so long as you’re not as bad as this lot, you’re not really that bad. If they ever take power, though, their politics are so objectionable that respective countries of France, Hungary and the Netherlands would stand accused of descending into populism. To go further to the right is to go down. To tend back towards the centre is to rise up, back into respectable politics and out of the gutter. We can talk about Putin’s Russia and Erdogan’s Turkey. These personalities are so remarkably fetid that as their power grows, entire countries go down with them. If Trump wins in the US next week, as I fear he might, the whole of America will sink in the eyes of the world.
Not so Israel, though. Why does nobody talk about Israel sinking into populism; descending into demagoguery; lurching to the far-right? Do we not want to countenance the possibility that, just as Orban is shutting down human rights organisations and collaring the press, “our” dear friends and allies in Tel Aviv are doing the same? Just because Israel was founded in part to counter persecution by Europe’s extreme far-right, is it impossible for it to become a far-right state itself? Or impossible for us to countenance that that is exactly what it already is?
Benjamin Netanyahu is at least as bad as Marine Le Pen with his rhetoric against minorities, but he actually runs a government, not just aspiring to do so. His Likud Party is the political descendant of hateful and murderous anti-British terrorists. Likud’s partners in the Israeli coalition government adore Vladimir Putin. By any and all contemporary conventions of British politics, all the alarm bells should be ringing for a country that is going the wrong way, and yet the British government — and many on the opposition benches in parliament — draws closer and closer to Netanyahu and his sidekicks even as Israel stoops lower and lower into the far-right gutter.
And let’s talk about Muslims. What do all of these abhorrent politicians have in common? From Trump to Netanyahu, and from Le Pen to Wilders and Orban, they share a profound hatred of Muslims; not Islam, or Islamism, but Muslims. What they say in public is, no doubt, the sanitised version of what they utter in private. The kind of breakfast table chat enjoyed at the Netanyahu household was revealed when it turned out that his teenage son is already a rampant Islamophobe. The seething and usually unspoken anti-Muslim sentiment amongst pro-Israel activists was laid bare last week when a former Israel Defence Forces officer, the unprofessional yob Elliott Miller — who is associated with the right-wing Henry Jackson Society — lost his cool and shouted that Islam is “a violent religion” at pro-Palestinian protesters.
William Booth has noted in a highly recommended Washington Post essay that Netanyahu’s real plan is “to convince the world that the surge in Palestinian violence here is not born of frustration against Israel’s decades-long military occupation but instead is the work of,” to use Netanyahu’s own words, “radical Islam.” Netanyahudistanced himself from Trump’s call for a total ban on Muslims entering the United States; rather ironically, it’s the kind of ban that existed in the past to prevent Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi Germany from entering America. Not long afterwards though, the Israeli leader was beaming for the cameras alongside the vehemently anti-Muslim Trump, and sharing tips on wall-building. Perhaps a three-way dinner with Orban would be a good idea; that monster likes a good anti-Muslim wall too.
Israel is a country that is lost in a morass of far-right hatred in which, by the very nature of its state-building project, it always ran the risk of ending up. It didn’t have to be that way. The hate today focuses on the Muslim faith and nature of the Palestinians. Israel, though, could stop building its illegal settlements. It could give the land that it has stolen since 1967 back to its Palestinian owners. It could act in accordance with international law and allow Palestinians to fulfil their right to return as a gesture of goodwill for stealing so many people’s homes, and in doing so explain to its Jewish citizens living in those homes that if they want to live in peace, they must live in new homes built by the state. Israel has enough room, and nobody wants to see Jewish migrants packed up in boats and sent back to Europe or North America from whence they came. Not to offer these homes back to those Palestinians from whom they were taken by force is akin to a burglar stealing something from your home, then claiming that he can’t afford to give it back.
However, in the warped and weird world of the Western commentariat who never visit the Israeli-occupied West Bank, Gaza Strip or East Jerusalem, even to mention such ideas these days is to stand accused of calling for the “delegitimisation of the state of Israel”. Such an allegation is nonsensical, of course; Western activists don’t need to delegitimise Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu and his cronies are doing a brilliant enough job of that already.
It’s time for the British media to treat Netanyahu and Israel with the same venom that they display towards Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey and Viktor Orban of Hungary, and what they may one day shower on Donald Trump in the United States or Marine le Pen in France. Netanyahu is an openly racist demagogue. Who in their right mind would want to be associated with him?