Ben-Gurion University of the Negev

Rhetoric, democratic backsliding, and Netanyahu’s 2019 election campaign by Tal Been

An election campaign is of great importance to a country’s political culture, affording an opportunity to examine the behavior of political actors and their influence upon public discourse. In this article, I will analyze Prime Minister Benyamin (Bibi) Netanyahu’s rhetoric during the campaign in the context of the Likud party campaign he led. I suggest that, when coming from the highest political authority, this indicates signs of democratic backsliding—the erosion of democratic norms and undermining of the legitimacy of democratic entities and institutions.

The 2019 elections for the 21st Knesset (Israeli parliament) took place on 9 April. PM Netanyahu declared early elections under the shadow of the Attorney General’s recommendation that he should be charged with corruption. A record of 42 parties signed up for the race, the largest being the Likud, the ruling right-wing party led by Netanyahu, and the new center-right party Kachol-Lavan, led by former chief of staff Benny Gantz and former finance minister Yair Lapid. To the average Israeli citizen, Netanyahu seemed to have met his match. The race between the two parties was close throughout the campaign, each party eventually gaining 35 seats (out of 120). What tipped the balance was the majority of mandates received by the overall right-wing parties (the “right-wing bloc”). This has now recommended that the President ask Netanyahu to form the next coalition.

According to Lust and Waldner (2015), democratic erosion occurs when there is a deterioration in the quality of democracy. Rather than a fast, dramatic occasion, this comprises a long process of small changes. In this context, Lust and Waldner also argue that political leaders play a significant role in democratic backsliding, acting as agents whose behavior is restricted to strategy, the conduct of other politicians. I suggest that an important part of a leader’s role, especially when serving as the highest political authority in the land (here, Prime Minister), is the message he/she delivers to the people—whether directly or indirectly. Scholars of exclusionary rhetoric frequently contend that we must not only study what agents explicitly say but also analyze the complex nature and subtext of their words and how this affects public discourse. Ilan Saban, for example maintains that statements of condemnation by political elites heavily influence society—Israel in particular being characterized by a great measure of rhetoric and symbolic battles in the service of legitimizing certain institutions (in this case, the Supreme Court) within the public discourse. Democratic erosion takes various forms, the delegitimization of democratic institutions—such as political opponents, the media, or any other institution that thrzeatens to restrict the government’s power—and the erosion of democratic norms, such as political patience, being those most relevant to this discussion.

Netanyahu gave his first speech as part of the Likud party election campaign on 3 March. Inter alia, he said:

Right-wing voters, I would like to tell you something. For four years, you have been sitting at home, listening to the propaganda broadcasts against us on television. Channels 11-12-13, it’s all the same, the same brainwashing. It is all so biased and I know how much it infuriates you … I want to tell you all: once in four years, you have the opportunity to give the reporters and commentators, the left propaganda broadcasters, a crushing answer. You can tell them a simple thing: We will decide—not you. The people hold sovereignty, not the media. Therefore, the people will decide. … Lapid and Gantz and their friends in the media know that most of the people support us, so they do everything to hide the real choice facing us in these elections: either a strong, right-wing government led by me, or a weak left-wing government led by Lapid and Gantz supported by the Arab parties. That is the real choice. In the end, it is either Tibi or Bibi.

Netanyahu employs diverse emotional manipulations here in order to delegitimize Gantz and Lapid. First and foremost is the “us” vs. “them” rhetoric. Netanyahu makes the audience a part of his battle against the media, claiming that the propaganda is against “us” so “we will decide”—not “them.” In what some might regard as a rather populist manner, he also asserts that the media has deprived the people of their sovereignty and must now take it back. These sentiments inspired a billboard showing the faces of four well-known journalists, headlined: “They will not decide” erected on a main road in Tel Aviv.

In his speech, Netanyahu directly associates the media with Gantz and Lapid, implying that they form part of the biased propaganda against the right. Affiliating Gantz and Lapid with other “enemies” of the public—or simply the “Left”—was a pre-coordinated strategy designed to hurt Kachol-Lavan and prevent it from stealing Likud votes. The Likud party campaign was filled with attempts to delegitimize the Left—a point directly relevant to this discussion in light of the fact the campaign was initiated by Netanyahu himself rather than an advertising agency or strategist.

As part of the campaign, the Likud party launched a video explaining why the Left is dangerous to Israel. At its peak, the speaker states that the campaign slogan “Gantz is Left—and Left is dangerous” against a backdrop of graves in the Israeli National Cemetery for IDF soldiers. The video created a significant buzz. The speaker was fired and Netanyahu made a public statement saying that he had immediately ordered that the “editorial error be fixed.” Irrespective of whether it was or not, the damage had been done, the Left being associated with Israel’s fallen soldiers—her dead sons.

The “us vs. them” rhetoric was also applied to the Left—specifically, Gantz and Lapid— and the Arabs. When Netanyahu says “It’s either Tibi or Bibi,” everyone knows what he means. The crowed unanimously roars back at him: “or Bibi.” The phrase “Bibi or Tibi” was such a commonplace during the Likud campaign that every Israeli was familiar with it. Here, Dr. Ahmed Tibi, a Palestinian Israeli who serves as a MK, represents the Arab minority in Israel. By stating “Tibi or Bibi,” Netanyahu gave voters an ultimatum: vote for me or end up with the Arab enemy ruling Israel. Prof. Aharon Barak, a former President of the Israeli Supreme Court, observes that a true democracy must find the delicate balance between majority rule and human rights, treating all its citizens—whether or not they belong to a minority group—equally. As this and other campaign speeches demonstrate, Netanyahu disagrees with him.

The phrase “I’ve sullied, then won it” will be remembered as the phrase that best describes the 2019 elections for all parties. Although an inappropriate way of running a campaign, sullying is not unacceptable per se. A ruling Prime Minister who delegitimizes a minority group of his own citizens, however, clearly compromises democratic norms. Throughout the Likud campaign, Netanyahu repeatedly attempted to delegitimize his critics—the media, his opponents, Kachol Lavan, the Left as a whole, and the Arab minority. Although he had employed such rhetoric in the previous election, he had done so much more mildly. After his election, it then became the norm when Netanyahu addressed the nation, however. Even though it is evidence of a trend towards democratic backsliding, it appears to have helped the Likud reach its goal of winning the elections.

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