When Binyamin “Bibi” Netanyahu, the controversial incumbent prime minister, came first in the March 2020 elections and managed to form a unity coalition with main opposition leader Benny Gantz, some media and academic observers were shocked at the results. The Washington Post called Netanyahu’s plurality a “surprise showing.” Western democracies tend to turn a gimlet eye towards political impresarios like Italian billionaire and political magnate Silvio Berlusconi. The roots of Netanyahu’s enduring relevance cannot be found in Western democratic practice. His rise to power shares a common DNA with contemporary Eastern European, especially Polish, politics. The link was born with the mostly Polish-origin first generation of Israeli politicians and survived the subsequent ideological shifts.
Origins of Israeli Tribalism
Two tropes from late nineteenth- and early twentieth century Polish politics echo across Israeli history: nationalism and Manicheanism. Modern Poland was partitioned by the Austrian, Prussian/German, and Russian empires. The need for coordinated action against the occupiers fostered a transpartisan feeling of national unity. The two main forces in pre-independence Polish politics regularly presented a united front against existential threats to Polish nationhood. The center-left “Polish Socialist Party” (PPS) linked national sovereignty with the class struggle. Its 1892 program declared “Polish blood…connected in its course to freedom with streams of blood that poured in the international revolutionary struggle.” For the PPS the nation mattered as much if not more than the workers’ cause. The center-right National Democracy movement’s theoretician, Roman Dmowski, joined forces with his rival, the more moderate Ignacy Paderewski (not a PPS member, but amenable to its agenda) to represent Polish interests at the 1919 Versailles conference. A tumultuous national rebirth meant that countrywide unity overrode parochial politics.
The most critical part of the Polish political mix, however, was a sense of siege from within and without that defined the partition-era factions. The left and right divided their opponents into internal and external enemies. The PPS, as a social-democratic party, faced those who opposed its leftism and those opposed to its Polishness. The 1892 program emphasized that the party, as a leftist group, believed in class warfare as well as national liberation: “In our struggle we may find ourselves against other factions – either of the transition classes, or classes that are essentially hostile to us…” On a national level, it considered all partitioning powers essentially hostile, no matter their blandishments. The Russian and German occupiers were particularly hated. In 1916, the PPS Central Committee fulminated in its May Day appeal that “instead of tsarist thugs, our country fell to voracious crows or hungry wolves, the worst outcasts of Prussian junkerism…” suggesting that these two partitioning powers were dangerous, even though the Germans hinted at future Polish autonomy.
The Polish right was equally concerned about internal and external threats to the Polish national movement – it saw them in the form of non-Polish nationalities rather than class foes. Roman Dmowski condemned the supposed “corruption of our intellectual life by alien elements, especially Jewish…Their survival instinct, which has nothing to do with the instinct of national survival…” To this line of thought national purification required eliminating those unreconciled to the ethnic majority. His post-independence rallies featured rhetoric demanding Jewish expulsion. Such anti-Semitism was a function of Dmowski’s insistence on national unity: anyone who did not subscribe to his narrow definition of the nation was a traitor-in-waiting, and such an attitude garnered him fierce opposition from tolerant circles. His prejudice did not stop with Jews. Dmowski claimed “the Germans are Janus-faced: in the West they talk of peace, and in the East they make ready for war.” Just like the center-left, the right’s sense of siege gave birth to the notion of internal and external enemies.
From Modlin to Modi’in: How Israelis Imported Polish Political Tropes
Jews from Poland played an outsized role in Israel’s foundation, bringing lessons they learned in the diaspora to national development. The twin maxims of national unity and enemies everywhere are evident in the Israeli left and right’s developments.
The Israeli labor movement drew heavily on Eastern European returnees. Most notably, first Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion began his career in the Polish branch of the Zionist movement Poalei Zion. Poalei Zion was a social-democratic party, which like the PPS tied national self-determination to the class struggle. When Poalei Zion eventually split over the decision to prioritize Zionism or revolution in the then-Russian Empire, Ben-Gurion sided with the pro-Zionist group, cementing his allegiance to the national project over internationalist ideals.
The Israeli right also learned from its leadership’s experience in Poland. The first center-right Israeli Prime Minister, Menachem Begin, helped run the anti-socialist Betar organization in Poland. Betar took on a radical coloration, sometimes chanting “Long live the Sanacja!” in street fights with rival movements. While ex-PPS leader Pilsudski was reviled by the Polish right, his reluctance to tolerate anti-Semitism sparked by Dmowski acolytes earned him the Jewish community’s acceptance. Begin remembered that in the 1930s, “The constant danger of pogroms cast its shadow of fear over us [Polish Jews].” Begin thus accepted an alliance with the enemy of his enemy to ensure his community’s safety.
The pre-Oslo generations exemplified the twin pillars of partition-era nationalism in its approach to crises – especially during the June 1967 War. Facing threats from three larger nations – Egypt, Jordan, and Syria – almost the entire Israeli political spectrum closed ranks. In the lead-up to fighting, Begin proposed that his rival Ben-Gurion take part in the unity government. Begin’s Gahal alliance remained in the governing coalition until 1969, two years after the war officially ended. Such concordance resembles the Dmowski-Paderewski partnership in 1919. Despite the bitter partisan rivalry between Begin, Ben-Gurion, and Eshkol, they put the national interest above party politics.
Transpartisanship echoes Polish nationalist trends. While United States held competitive elections during the Second World War and the United Kingdom’s unity government ended after victory in Europe despite a still-active front, Poland’s government-in-exile, however, included members and opponents of the ousted Sanation regime – a testament to Polish politicians’ continued sacralization of the national interest and unity.
Akin to contemporary Polish sentiment, national unity remained firm in the face of an external enemy. Serious compromise between Israel and its Arab neighbors remained a near-universal political taboo until Yitzhak Rabin signed the Oslo Accords in 1993. Ben-Gurion famously proclaimed “I am unwilling to forego even one percent of Zionism for ‘peace’ —yet I do not want Zionism to infringe upon even one percent of legitimate Arab rights.” The right was equally implacable. Menachem Begin’s political mentor Ze’ev Jabotinsky expressed this most succinctly in his essay The Iron Wall in which he claimed, “The only way to reach an agreement [with the Arabs] is an iron wall – meaning a force in Eretz Yisrael [State of Israel] which will not be shattered by any Arab influence.” The Arab-Israeli conflict to them was a struggle for survival, making the changes of 1993 all the more momentous for the country’s political trajectory.
Oslo: The Development of the Israeli Internal Enemy
The 1993 ratification of the Oslo Accords ended the old generation’s national unity by melding of the internal rival with the external enemy. Yitzhak Rabin’s acceptance of the 1993 Oslo Accords shattered the post-independence consensus on national security. Left and right historically refused to accept the main Palestinian organizations as legitimate partners and saw their Pan-Arabist backers as security threats. But the Accords went beyond simply legitimizing the Palestinian Liberation Organization as the negotiating partner. It also meant the cession of key territories claimed by irredentists – both Jewish-populated settlements like Ariel and communities in holy sites like Hebron. The center-left government, which midwifed the 1993 agreement, became viewed in certain quarters as one that betrayed the collective Jewish identity. Netanyahu, then a rising star in the Likud party, headed a rally in which a coffin was paraded with the inscription “Rabin is causing the death of Zionism.” At another rally in which attendees chanted “death to Rabin,” Netanyahu, unlike other Likud heavyweights, refused to leave.
Political tensions continued rising, and on November 4, 1995 an extremist law student, Yigal Amir, assassinated Rabin during a Tel Aviv rally. At his court hearing, Amir claimed, “according to the Halacha [Jewish law], you can kill the enemy… My whole life, I learned Halacha. When you kill in war, it is an act that is allowed.” Prime Minister Rabin, in his killer’s eyes, posed the same threat as a terrorist or foreign invader. The far-right’s impetus for such extreme, violent reactions came from their sense that the national unity which sustained Israel in its early decades was broken with the cession of hard-won land. The country’s togetherness dissolved and the internal enemy arrived.
At the same time, Poland saw an amalgamation of its internal and external enemies. By 1991, Poland’s main external threats, Russia and Germany, were neutralized. With Germany’s defeat in 1945, it no longer posed a threat to Polish sovereignty. However, Russia, in the form of the Soviet Union, remained, establishing a Communist satellite state. Economic stagnation and popular opposition movement helped end single-party rule in 1989. The transition to a market economy brought social dislocation and financial hardship. In desperation, some Poles turned inwards, seeking simple explanations for their misery.
The uneven process of lustration offered a pretext. It led to accusations that the new non-Communist leadership was in fact comprised of Communist agents. The accusations only increased when then-Prime Minister Tadeusz Mazowiecki announced a “thick line” between the present and the past in an attempt to reconcile the deposed Communists with their victims and opponents. Now liberals and moderates were added to the list of national foes. Former Defense Minister Antoni Macierewicz, a right-wing parliamentarian, alleged Poland’s first democratically elected president Lech Walesa was a Communist agent codenamed “Bolek.” Macierewicz’s claim could not be definitively proved but kept public suspicions alive.
Post-Oslo: Unlearning the ‘Pedagogy of Shame’
The search for crypto-Communists expanded into a wider condemnation of the privatization era’s increased liberality and market orientation. In the early 2000s, the Polish right developed an electoral platform of settling Cold War scores, spearheaded by Jaroslaw and Lech Kaczynski. Child actors turned right-wing powerhouses; they offered a break from 1990s norms. In a 2016 interview, soon after his “Law and Justice” party’s victory, Jaroslaw Kaczynski declared: “The establishment in this country say that everything is OK…It is radically not OK.” Jaroslaw especially viewed social liberalism as a threat to Poland: in the same interview, he condemned “the ‘pedagogics of shame’, the tendency that has dominated Poland over the past 20 years.” The internal enemies combined with the external ones for Jaroslaw in 2010, when his brother Lech, then president, died in a mysterious plane crash over Smolensk. Jaroslaw suspected not only the Russians, but political rival Donald Tusk in the killing. Since then, Kaczynski calls Donald Tusk’s Civic Platform party unpatriotic. In 2016, Antoni Macierewicz, defense minister at the time, claimed “that under Civic Platform, Poland’s military-and-intelligence officials had been doing Russia’s bidding — perhaps, he conceded, unknowingly — and presented a photograph that he said showed Polish intelligence officers playfully donning Russian navy caps at a gathering in St. Petersburg.” The accusations stuck. The once-dominant liberals found themselves struggling in more conservative, rural areas which ostensibly would benefit from Europeanism’s expanded market opportunities. In the 2018 regional elections, Law and Justice became the largest party in nine of 16 voievodships (provinces). For the right, domestic political opponents became foreign threats and electoral gold spun by the disillusioned public.
In Israel, Netanyahu developed a similar platform, condemning the overly liberal spirit of Oslo. His internal enemies, as in Poland, were those who allegedly failed to back up the national interest. When Likud Prime Minister Ariel Sharon agreed to leave the occupied Gaza Strip, Netanyahu left the government and Sharon formed a new party. Netanyahu claimed that Sharon’s initial withdrawal would lead to more territorial concessions, this time in the country’s capital. Eastern Jerusalem contains the Western Wall, a site of immense importance to Judaism and Israeli identity.
Like Poland’s right, Netanyahu pressed on, entering a sociocultural realm to attack the internal foe. While Netanyahu avoided condemning market capitalism, he and his ministers waded into simmering cultural conflicts. Culture Minister Miri Regev in 2015, referred to a “cultural junta” of European-descended Israelis in the arts and proposed defunding established Israeli cultural organizations on the grounds that they expressed insufficient loyalty to the state. On the legal front, former Justice Minister Naftali Bennett claimed “the excessive power of the judicial system… ties the hands of the IDF soldiers to defeat Hamas.” In his worldview, legal norms prevented Israel from fighting the enemy beyond Israel’s borders, while leftwing cultural elites undermined the national morale internally. In Regev and Bennett’s twin efforts, the internal enemy/external enemy dyad asserts itself.
Netanyahu reused the playbook in the 2019-2020 campaigns, when rhetoric divided Israelis into “us” and “them.” Those who stood with Netanyahu, and the questionable smolim (leftists). Facebook bots run by his campaign sent voters messages claiming Israel’s Arab politicians “want to destroy us [Israelis] all” by supporting a leftwing minority government. Given that regional public opinion remains frosty towards Israel, the left was portrayed as linked to the foreign and dangerous, never mind that 20% of Israel’s population is Arab. Most importantly for Bibi, the opposition failed to offer a concrete alternative the public liked. The main opposition leader Benny Gantz served as Netanyahu’s chief of staff and holds similar views. In a 2019 speech in Washington DC, Gantz declared “I say from this stage to the Iranian regime…We will not allow you to develop a nuclear weapon.” Such rhetoric parallels Netanyahu’s own assertion that the Iranian government was a “criminal regime” seeking nuclear war. As in Poland, the three 2019-2020 Israeli elections drove out opposition and left the field to the incumbent, original nationalist.
To understand why the Israeli public looks for Netanyahu-like figures, one must understand the political context for Israel’s defense-oriented political system. The political antecedents for Israeli multiparty democracy came from early 20th century Poland, where survival meant keeping friends close and enemies closer. Following changes in the 1990s, factions in both countries – Israeli opponents of the Oslo Accords and Polish revisionists – could not accept that the political field changed, and condemned the entire system these changes wrought. Such discontent nursed and nourished the Netanyahus and Kaczynskis in both lands.