Israel Pulse

Netanyahu turns discrimination resentment into strategy

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Article Summary
Forty years after the political turnabout that brought the right-wing Likud Party to power, Likud supporters from the periphery and of Middle Eastern origin still feel discriminated by a left-wing European elite.

For several months, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been battling the soon-to-be-launched Israeli Public Broadcasting Corporation. During one of the highlights of this saga, Education Minister Naftali Bennett lashed out at Netanyahu, saying, "You're talking like the Herut Party [mother party of Likud] back when Mapai [mother party of the Labor Party] was still in power … except this time, you've been in power for 40 years. Stop whining!"

Bennett made these remarks during a testy July 2016 Cabinet meeting. Netanyahu was trying to shut down the new broadcasting corporation, claiming that it was controlled by the left. In his vitriolic response, Bennett targeted Likud ministers, who claimed, one after the other, that public representation within the new entity was discriminatory (against the Likud). The most outspoken of these was Minister of Culture Miri Regev. She wondered what was the point of the new corporation, if it wasn’t to be controlled by the Likud.

Bennett's remarks were lost in the heat of the debate, where they were intended as a political attack against his rivals. Nevertheless, they were an expression of a deep insight, which deserves further consideration. How is it possible that leaders and supporters of the Likud, which has governed the country for most years since the electoral revolution of May 17, 1977, still claim to face discrimination by the left-wing media and still fight against the legal elites, which they claim to be dominated by the "left"? Why do they still act as if they are the underdog and not the ruling party?

This month marks 40 years since the electoral revolution, which changed the face of Israel forever and brought an end to Mapai domination of the country's political scene after 29 years. The pragmatic left-wing party had formed all of Israel's governments from independence (1948) until that night, when the Likud, headed by Menachem Begin, took power after many long years in the opposition. Since then, Labor only won two elections: in 1992, when Yitzhak Rabin won, and again in 1999, when Ehud Barak came to power briefly. Other than that, the various iterations of Mapai and Labor, once a large and robust left-wing party, has been on the decline and unable to return to power.

Nevertheless, this sense of persecution and victimhood continues to characterize the Likud and even its leader Netanyahu, the man who has led the party to a series of consecutive electoral victories since 2009.

Presenting Likud supporters as facing discrimination by the left-wing elites in the media and the legal system is part of a larger political strategy. It serves the interests of Netanyahu and other senior party officials to maintain this sense of victimhood as a political motivator. Time and again, it has been proved effective. It is a strategy that served Begin, too. In his day, it was the basis of an "alliance of those rejected by Israeli society," including Mizrahi Jews, which eventually brought about the electoral revolution.

But this is more than just an effective political tool. This sense of discrimination among many traditional Likud voters and their leaders is completely authentic. Netanyahu is a prime example of this. He was raised on this sense of discrimination at home. His father, historian Benzion Netanyahu, was convinced that he was denied advancement in his career by the left-wing elites of the academy.

"The paranoid can also be persecuted," Herzl Makov, the head of the Menachem Begin Heritage Center, told Al-Monitor. Makov agrees that criticism over these claims — of long-ruling Likud complaining against left-wing hegemony — is understandable. Yet he argues that these claims are not entirely detached from reality. As he explained it, the first 29 years of Israeli independence under Mapai continue to leave their mark on Israeli society today.

"It was total government in the sense that all branches of government were controlled by the same party. It was not just the government itself but the Histadrut Workers Union, the local authorities, the legal system, the economy and the media," he said. "When the Likud came to power in 1977, they made the mistake of thinking that once they control the government, they control the country, too. A country is like an aircraft carrier. It cannot be turned 90 degrees all at once. That is why so many people on the right were left feeling frustrated."

Makov added, "Likud didn’t completely understand what it means to be in power, and that society is affected by more than just the government. They didn't realize how powerful the establishment is outside the government. They started complaining about how the left controlled the major publishing houses, but what can you do when those publishing houses were founded by the [socialist] kibbutzim?"

It is no secret that Netanyahu has a very heated relationship with the media. Ever since he was a young politician, he claimed that he has been persecuted by them. Three decades have passed since then, and the Israeli media has become much more decentralized, especially over the last decade. Netanyahu has a newspaper of his own (Israel Hayom, owned by Netanyahu’s political patron Sheldon Adelson), which serves as his home front in the media. And that does not even take into account the powerful presence he has on social media. Also, over the years, he managed to increase his grip on other media outlets such as Walla website, which is controlled by his associate Shaul Elovitch and offers Netanyahu positive coverage. Most of all, Netanyahu is advancing with his strategy of controlling public broadcasting. Nevertheless, claims of persecution by the left-wing media can still be heard from senior Likud officials with the same passion as in the 1950s.

According to Makov, here, too, the situation is complicated, and claims that left-wing elites still dominate the media are not completely detached from reality. He said, "While religious nationalists have entered the media in relatively significant numbers; they are not Likud supporters per se. When it comes to representation on the screen, it is fair to say that producers and editors in the [digital] media still identify with the center left. As for Israel Hayom, it is more of a personal newspaper rather than a pro-right-wing paper. As for other media outlets like Makor Rishon newspaper or Channel 20, they are immediately branded as right-wing media outlets."

Makov also believes that Regev has a "case," when she complains of ethnic discrimination against Mizrahi Jews and claims that the periphery has been denied budgets for cultural events and development. "The reason for the war against her is that the old establishment is afraid of losing funding," he said.

According to Makov, the electoral revolution, which began on the night of May 17, 1977, was just the beginning of an intense process that carries on until today and that continues to shape Israeli society and its institutions. One very clear expression of this can be found in the past two years — ever since Netanyahu won the 2015 election. It seems as if all inhibitions have been cast to the wind. The war against the media, the legal system and the Ashkenazi elites has become unusually brusque and replete with exaggerated claims of persecution and victimhood. All of that hardly seems to be what Begin intended.

Found in: broadcasting, right wing, menachem begin, likud party, miri regev, benjamin netanyahu, israeli media

Mazal Mualem is a columnist for Al-Monitor's Israel Pulse and formerly the senior political correspondent for Maariv and Haaretz. She also presents a weekly TV show covering social issues on the Knesset channel. On Twitter: @mazalm3

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